The Making of the Chinese Middle Class

The formation of a middle class is one of the main features of the new Chinese society. How does this class compare to those we’re used to? Where is it positioned between capitalism and state interventionism? Will there be an end to its development? These are the questions that Jean-Louis Rocca, emeritus researcher at CERI, addresses in his latest work, The Making of the Chinese Middle Class

How do you define middle class?

In all societies that see strong economic growth over a long period, intermediate groups appear between the “poor” and the “rich” in the social hierarchy. It’s a fact: a group of individuals starts to enjoy a good income, a good education, good jobs, etc. Then, a whole series of people try to make sense of this fact and we enter the realm of the imaginary, of representation and of political struggle. And before we even get to know this population well through serious studies, specific virtues are attributed to it. It is deemed smarter, more modern, and more capable of changing society and politics. It is as if these people were the ideal citizens of modern nations.

How did the middle class come about in China?

In China, the process of “middle classing” began in the late 1990s when the government launched radical reforms. By facilitating the commodification of land, it “enabled” farmers to go and get themselves exploited on a large-scale in new industrial zones. Massive cuts were made to public sector jobs, creating a labour market where those who have certain skills and relationships were in a position of power. Finally, the education system was expanded to enable many young Chinese to attend university. Those who now form the intermediate layers of society are those who were able to take advantage of these transformations, for example, urban populations and their children. It is the children of the urban workers and the low level civil servants who now make up the intermediate classes. 

Are “middle class” Chinese aware that they belong to this social group?

On the one hand, everyone wants to be middle class, in that everyone wants to have a meaningful job and a decent income, study at university, buy an apartment and a car, give their children a good education, travel, go out, etc. It’s the model lifestyle. On the other hand, the expression “middle class” is problematic because of its polysemy. Being part of the middle class does, in a way, mean belonging to a certain bourgeoisie, which isn’t seen in a very positive light. It also means having acquaintances among the ruling classes, whose success is often due to corruption and cronyism. The intermediate classes have a moral discourse on obtaining a job through work, having moderate desires and the necessity to favour “being” over “having”, which criticises the upper class. However, once people declare themselves “middle class,” they are, in a way, coming closer to those they are criticising.

In the subtitle of your book you mention Great Expectations (Small Comfort, Great Expectations). Can you tell us more?

I was looking for a subtitle and the Chinese like “four character expressions”, such as proverbs or sayings. And since a lot is being said in China about “small comfort” (xiaokang), I thought “great expectations” would balance the title nicely. What I mean is that the government would like to expand this state of “small comfort” (the middle class standard of living) to a very large majority of the population, so in return, this population has great expectations in this regard. Everyone wants to be middle class and that’s very dangerous, politically.

Why? What is the danger?

In all modern and developing societies, populations are told that the individual is in control of improving his or her standard of living, and that society gives all its members an opportunity to “fulfil themselves”. This discourse works very well in China and that’s why Chinese people accept inequalities and corruption. The problem is that if the people who succeed in their studies, who accumulate skills, and who are devoted to their jobs realise that it’s not enough to constantly improve their situation, the social contract is broken.

Does that mean that members of the middle class have a political consciousness?

In my opinion, there isn’t really a middle class as such. Rather there are intermediate categories that are grouped under the term despite having little in common. This is evident with political issues. The movements that these groups are involved in are very diverse and localised. It’s all about protesting against a dishonest real estate developer or closing a polluting factory; in other words, only actions that concern a very particular group of individuals. There is no mobilisation on a wider scale.  

You have spent a lot of time in China and have been able to question many students. Do they have dreams of upward mobility?

All students want to be part of the middle class. The problem is that there is a spectacular rise in the unemployment of young, qualified people. China wants to modernise its economy, make it more productive, more efficient and more high tech. But these changes have led to a decrease in job numbers and there are already too many people with these skills on the job market.

The picture on the front cover shows a young Chinese woman who seems to personify the middle class; she’s at once modern and traditional. Why did you choose this picture?

The way the Chinese middle class is treated in China is an issue of representation, imaginary, illusion, fantasy, pose and fashion. This picture illustrates that perfectly! I also like the photo because it’s old-fashioned. The way the young lady is dressed is outdated, the “tradition and modernity” theme is also very kitsch nowadays and all the Chinese I showed this photo to told me no one has this sort of computer anymore. In that sense, the cover is good at evoking the perpetual game of mirrors that this discourse on the middle class represents. We are always someone else’s “bumpkin”.

Find out more

Telling history through comics

Telling history through comics

Comics have really earned their stripes in recent years and are now a research subject in their own right. Isabelle Delorme, who has just been awarded her PhD from Sciences Po’s Centre for History, is interested in what she calls “historical memory narratives in comics”: works in which authors interweave family history with general history, such as in the immensely popular Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. What does the study of comics contribute to research? We asked Dr Delorme, a researcher who is passionate about her subject. 

More
Training students to be media-savvy

Training students to be media-savvy

Structuring one’s ideas to be read by a lay audience, using social networks to build a community focused on one’s area of expertise, writing a column or being interviewed on camera or the radio are all situations that Sciences Po graduates are likely to face in their professional lives, whatever career they go into.
To prepare students for this type of exercise, the School of Journalism is setting up a “Media and Narrative Centre” which will be open to all Master’s students who want to understand different types of media and how they work.

More
From Mexico to France

From Mexico to France

As Adán Corral finishes the second semester of his Master’s in International Public Management at the Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs, he is coming close to completing an essential part of his studies.
The 27-year-old, born in Morelia, Mexico, has had a remarkably dynamic education: he has studied in both Mexico and China, and did internships in Iceland, Italy and Belgium. None of these international experiences would have been possible without financial support.

More
Emmanuel Macron, French president-elect, Class of 2001

Emmanuel Macron, French president-elect, Class of 2001

Emmanuel Macron was 21 years old when he arrived at Sciences Po. After three years of preparatory classes in the arts section at lycée Henri IV and two failed attempts at the entrance exams for the École Normale Supérieure, he is said to have gone to Sciences Po to “lick his wounds,” perhaps even “with a certain spirit of revenge”. More

How Marine Le Pen could win the French presidential election even if she polls lower than 50%

How Marine Le Pen could win the French presidential election even if she polls lower than 50%

(By Serge Galam, Sciences Po). Never before in modern history has a French presidential election been punctuated by so many unforeseen events of all kinds, judicial and electoral. It ended up on the April 23 first-round vote with a four-way split, ranking centrist Emmanuel Macron first with 24.01%, followed by Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN) on 21.30%. François Fillon of Les Républicains was on 20.01% and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far left on 19.58%. The Conversation

More
Meet the Reims campus gardeners

Meet the Reims campus gardeners

Today, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. Reason enough for the student association Sciences Po Environment to make urban agriculture one of its main focuses.

In January 2017, the Reims campus branch of Sciences Po Environment launched Sciences Potager, a project to plant and maintain a vegetable garden on campus. To help them get started, they sought the expertise of L’Ecole des Jardiniers, a local association that promotes organic agriculture.

More