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”.

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