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January 31, 2004

Can China Keep Up the Pace?


by Sascha Matuszak

A recent study by a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences claims the emerging Chinese middle class is a myth. All those interviewed who believe they are middle class, are actually deluding themselves or lying. Or are being lied to.

A concurrent stream of research by the Henry Luce Foundation in cooperation with the Baker Institute and Rice University deals with the changes undergoing Chinese culture and society after the doors have opened. This team of social scientists is focusing heavily on advertisements and contemporary art. China, for many Western academicians, is a beautiful petri dish in which a whole century's development is taking place in slots of 5-year plans and the heads have determined that, yes, Chinese are susceptible to ads too.

Preliminary results show that the Chinese are being "encouraged" to think of themselves as middle class. According to the Academy, 50% of Mainland Chinese consider themselves "middle class": the myth lives.

The Academy's study focused on possessions, income, profession and subjective identity. But it's only the last one that counts. In China it is hard to distinguish between middle and upper class because the gulf between them and the other 80% of the people in China is so huge but the little valley separating the filthy rich with the plain old well-off is present and growing.

Middle-class out here in the sticks means you make a few thousand RMB a month say 3000 a decent place to live and time off to go out on the town or take a trip to Yunnan during the Spring Festival. That includes a vast swath of the urban population. Chinese save money at a rate of 40%; car registrations are in the thousands per month in Chengdu and climbing; Carrefour is popping up in every major city across the country peasants don't shop at stores like Carrefour and Metro and they drive carts.

The Chinese middle class is very alive, but also very fragmented. It is not enough to separate people based on finances: middle class is a way of life, a pattern of consumption. Those who have been hit by the "magic bullet" be it sinister ads placed by the huge corporations to brainwash us into buying their goods or Brandy's latest hit are those who constitute the middle class. The whole society is treated to TV shows based in a Beijing loft apartment that doesn't exist outside of major urban areas, but if you are in a city and have an apartment, you can identify. You don't have to own a car, you just have to want to own one.

What the Academy's study shows is that China's society is transforming at a higher pace than its economy. The question has always been Can China Keep Up the Pace?

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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