China’s emerging middle class: a changing social and political order

October 6th, 2008 - 10:25 am ICT by IANS  

Beijing, Oct 6 (Xinhua) Eric Wang walks into a restaurant near his office in Beijing’s central business district. Wearing an immaculately pressed dark blue suit with a gold-coloured tie, he picks up a cup of cappuccino and sips.”It’s really a sharp contrast between my life and that of my parents,” says Wang. A certified public accountant (CPA) in an international accounting firm, he enjoys a life of great vicissitudes.

Born into a rural family in east China’s Zhejiang province, Wang every summer visits his village to help his parents who earn a living by farming and fishing in the Taihu Lake.

Now 29, he earns more than 200,000 yuan ($29,000) a year by working for companies which look to be listed on the stock exchange.

In major metropolian cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, among others, Wang and his ilk are making up a group that has emerged in China after the country’s economic makeover began three decades ago.

Thirty years ago, Wang’s parents lived in a people’s commune in which everything was collectively owned by the member peasants. Workers in factories enjoyed cradle-to-grave welfare.

Another group, the intellectuals, including teachers in colleges and performing artistes, were tied in different organizations.

Situations changed as China adopted a policy of opening up to the outside world in 1978, when national leader Deng Xiaoping and his supporters decided to end the class struggle and turn to economic development.

Zhang Wanli, deputy researcher with the Sociology Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), notes that before 1978 China had three classes - peasants, workers, and intellectuals. Private enterprise was strictly prohibited. A peasant who sold eggs in rural free market would be seen as “the tail of capitalism” that had to be cut off.

Restrictions were gradually lifted from 1978. People now could run private enterprises and employ workers.

Then, foreign capital came. Thanks to those changes, commercial, financial and services sectors grew rapidly. New jobs, white-collar managers in foreign and domestic enterprises, owners of small and medium enterprises came into existence. So did professionals, like lawyers and accountants.

Freed from the restraints of the old system, they gained in mobility that allowed them to acquire economic interests, like entrepreneurship and knowledge, in the budding markets.

However, the new class has stirred up controversies. Many people believe “middle class” is a lifestyle. They think a middle class family should own at least one apartment and one car, have a golf club membership, and often travel overseas. In other words, it is a lifestyle of the rich.

“I have no car, and I live in an apartment built as work unit accommodation from the CASS,” says Zhang.

“But when I was interviewing a millionaire entrepreneur at one time, he said I definitely belong to the middle class.” Zhang says social status and profession, rather than income, play more important roles in defining social classes.

In 2001, the CASS conducted a nationwide survey, which found the middle class in terms of profession, including people with new jobs and in non-public sectors, and those government officials and intellectuals in the middle levels, accounted for 20 percent of the total population.

In that survey, intellectuals, executives, officials of vice-ministerial level and above, billionaire private business owners were defined as the upper class, while industrial workers, business people, and farmers and jobless people were placed in the lower classes.

Although the middle class kept increasing in the past seven years, Zhang says its proportion to the total population remains approximately the same as more rural people come to the cities to seek work swelling the number in the lower stratum. Considering that rural population account almost 64 percent, it is really a large number.

In 2006, the state-run Outlook Weekly reported the newly emerging strata, including non-public sectors and professional people, accounted for 11.5 percent of the population and contributed almost one third of the total taxes. They also held more than half of the total technical patent rights.

“If the middle class can be quantified by money, I belong to it,” says Eric Wang, “but it makes no sense - I’m only a high-paid worker.”

China’s middle class is trying to find a place in the established political system. The recent years have witnessed its rise as a politically significant section.

Zhang points out that more private entrepreneurs and professionals became delegates to the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2007. Considering the increasing economic and social influence of the new social stratum, the Party has made efforts to include them in the political mechanism.

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