The Making of the Chinese Middle Class.
Interview with Jean-Louis Rocca, author of The Making of the Chinese Middle Class. Small Comfort and Great Expectations, Sciences Po series in International Relations and Political Economy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
According to you there are too many definitions of the notion of middle class, which contributes to a certain confusion and a difficult identification of the phenomenon. Would you accept to briefly summarize why the Chinese middle class can indeed be considered a 'middle class'?
JLR: In all societies that witness a strong economic growth during a long period of time, intermediary groups appear, situated between the « poor » and the « rich » in social hierarchy. This is a fact: a group of individuals starts to enjoy a good income, a good education, a good job, etc. Then, a variety of people try to make sense of this fact and we enter into the domain of the imaginaire, representation, political struggle. And before we even get to know this population well through serious studies, this social group is attributed specific virtues. It is deemed smarter, more modern, and more capable of changing society and politics. It is as if these people are the ideal citizens of modern nations.
One can easily imagine that the emergence of the middle class in China is a relatively recent phenomenon. When did it emerge and what kind of changes does it follow?
JLR: In China, the “middlelization” phenomenon started at the end of the 1990s, when the government launched radical reforms. Land was easily commodified and large scale exploitation of farmers started in new industrial zones. Public sector jobs were massively cut and a labour market was created where those who have certain skills and relationships are in a position of power. The education system expanded to enable many young Chinese to attend university. Those who make the intermediary layers of society are those who were able to take advantage of these transformations, for example, the urban populations and their children. It is the children of the urban workers and the low level civil servants who now make up the intermediary classes. To get a good job, you need a good education and to have a good education you need to study in a good urban school. To find a good job you also need to find a job in a city and for that, you need good relationships.
Are 'middle' Chinese aware that they belong to this social group? Is this a subject of pride for them? If so, why, and what sort of imaginaire relates to the middle class?
JLR: On one side, everyone wants to be middle class in that everyone wants to have a decent income, a valorising job, study at a university, buy an apartment and a car, give his child a good education, travel, go out, etc. It’s the model lifestyle. On the other side, the expression « middle class » is problematic because of its polysemy. Being part of the middle class partly means being part of a certain bourgeoisie, which isn’t seen very positively. It also means having acquaintances with dominant people whose success is often due to corruption and cronyism. The intermediary classes have a moral discourse on obtaining a job through work, having moderate desires, and having the necessity to favour « being » over « having », which criticizes the upper class. However, once people declare themselves “middle class,” they are, in a way, getting closer to the very ones they criticise.
In the subtitle of your book you mention Great Expectations (Small Comfort, Great Expectations). Can you tell us more?
JLR: I was actually looking for a subtitle and the Chinese like « four character expressions », like proverbs or sayings. And in China, since a lot is being said 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, and therefore this population, in return, has great expectations in this regard. Everyone wants to be middle class and that’s very dangerous, politically.
Why? What would be the danger?
JLR: In all modern and growing societies populations are told that the individual is in control of improving his or her standard of living, and that society gives everyone an opportunity to ‘fulfil oneself’. 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 realize that it’s not enough to constantly improve their situation, the social contract is broken. That’s the problem with capitalism: it promises a lot but does not give much. And one of the reasons of the success of Chinese capitalism is that it promises a lot… It has given back a little, but will that continue?
Do members of the middle class have a political consciousness? What are the subjects or causes for which they can get into collective action?
JLR: In my opinion, there isn’t really a middle class so to speak, but rather there are intermediary categories that are put under the term yet have little in common. This is evident with political issues. The movements that these groups are involved in are very diverse and localized. It’s all about protesting against a rude real estate developer, closing a polluting factory, in other words only actions that concern a very particular group of individuals. There are no actions on a wider scale.
You have done several long term stays in China and have been close to many students with whom you could do a study. Do middle class students have dreams linked to upward mobility?
JLR: 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 modernize its economy, make it more productive, more efficient, more high tech. But these changes have led to a reduction of the number of jobs and there are already too many people with these skills on the job market.
To end this interview, I would like to come back to the image chosen for the cover of the book. It shows a young Chinese woman, wearing ‘modern’ clothes, sitting at a table eating a large bowl of noodles and typing on a laptop. She is probably working online or tchating on the social networks. The background shows a simple and traditional restaurant. Why do you like this image?
JLR: First because it is ‘posed’, ‘built’. It was one the publisher’s requirements. To avoid copyright issues, we had to choose a photo on which nothing was left to chance. The way the Chinese middle class is treated in China is an issue of representation, imaginaire, illusion, fantasy, pose and fashion. This picture was perfectly in the theme! I like this photo also because it is old-fashioned. The way the young lady is dressed is out of fashion, the theme « tradition and modernity » is also completely kitsch and all the Chinese I showed this photo to, told me no one has this sort of computer anymore. Therefore, this cover is good at evoking the perpetual game of mirrors that this discourse on the middle class can be. We are always someone else’s ‘bumpkin’…
Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI
Translated by Miriam Périer and Charlotte Forfang