Demystify China’s Middle Class

People often ask me about the definition of the Chinese middle class. To me, it’s simple: the middle class are people who are not poor or rich, who have disposable incomes to consume, and who can follow their own dreams and pursue their own futures.

Yet there are many debates about the Chinese middle class. Some said China has only the new rich and the very poor; others argued that the middle class is an American concept and it doesn’t apply to China.

To make things simple, here is a definition from China’s National Bureau of Statistics: the households with an annual income ranging from 60,000 yuan ($7,250) to 500,000 yuan ($62,500) should be categorized as middle class.

A research team led by Professor Zhou Xiaohong in Nanjing University further defined the occupation of the middle class to be: professionals in management and technology, civil servants, and entrepreneurs, with college or above education.

If the “middle class” is an American concept, the Chinese are adopting it. With these two definitions, I believe the picture should be clearer about what the Chinese middle class would look like. They are consistent with my research and interviews with people in China.

I have to point out that there is even confusion about the term “middle class.” In an article “Myth of China’s new middle class,” the author argued the middle class in the West was evolved from bourgeoisie during the industrialization and “became more complex, producing managerial and professional classes,” and China’s “new rich categories of entrepreneurs are quite unlike the 19th-century European bourgeoisie in the extent to which they have emerged from and retain close relationships with the established political system.”

I don’t understand why the “new rich” has anything to do with the “new middle class” here. To make things more complicated, people in China actually consider “bourgeoisie” (??) to be lower than the middle class (??). Furthermore, to separate the government from people is also a “Western way of thinking.” Notice the occupations of the Chinese middle class include “civil servants,” – that means “the government officials.”

The Chinese middle class will not be the same as the Western middle class. How are they different? What impact will they have? These are the “myths” my book is going to unveil. Please stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “Demystify China’s Middle Class

  1. In our post at http://www.civicchina.com/?p=38 , we focus on the importance of a political element of a ‘middle class’ discussion. We hope that your book will engage with this conclusion! (it may be necessary to review your somewhat reductive definition)

    “[…] Emboldened by visible successes, professional salarymen and -women from all walks of life (including academics, lawyers, media people, even police officers) may sooner or later unite in their desire to become members of a ‘new middle class’ that is fighting for its rights and that is powerful enough to confront those it deems responsible to take responsibility for their wrongdoings.

    In the light of such danger it is hardly surprising that today’s rulers (in China as elsewhere) prefer to disarm the explosive potential of any discussion trying to determine who constitutes a ‘new middle class.’ The preferred measures include limiting public (or even academic) discourse and defining the concept in purely economic terms.

    The resulting mental limitations go a long way in suppressing the shared meanings that could evolve based on shared political views (about specific place-based issues) already held by millions of China’s professionals.

    While a united ‘new middle class’ could create a more just and solidaristic society, it would in the process also question, and threaten, the legitimacy of established ruling authorities. No wonder those authorities are doing everything they can to prevent a ‘new middle class’ from realizing and nurturing the shared-ness of its opinions.”