A Glimpse of China’s Middle Class (Part 2)

A report originally published in the People’s Daily takes a look at what it means to be a member of China’s middle class. Read Part 1 here. [Translated by Don Weinland]

Editor’s note: In maintaining the livelihood of the people and promoting harmony, an important goal is to gradually form an “olive-shaped” distribution configuration in which middle-income workers are the majority. As the middle class, the middle-income population should be society’s stabilizer. However, distorted high housing prices have overdrawn on much of what they will make in a lifetime. Then consider “early retirement,” the intensity of work, children’s education, residency (Hukou system) … The nation’s so-called middle class is saddled with all kinds of pressures. “Housing slaves,” “automobile slaves,” “credit slaves,” “slaves to the expenses of their children” … permeate the middle class, causing frustration and helplessness. Perhaps the establishment of an “olive-shaped” society is a long way off.

Recently, a journalist has gone among this population, experiencing some of the real life conditions of the “middle class,” and giving us a listen to their voice.

Pendulum-like days

One hundred eighty-five kilometers separates home into two halves. A ride on the metro, on the fast train, in a taxi…one trip home is a harrowing four hours.

Cheng Yueqiang, customer service manager of a Shanghai securities company

Fridays are the most crowded at Changzhou, Jiangsu’s train station.

Sept. 3 was another Friday. At 7:20 p.m., fast train G720 promptly enters Changzhou Station from Shanghai. Cheng, who lives in Changzhou’s new district, is the first off the train. Tomorrow is his daughter’s 10th birthday. He can’t wait to get home.

Although the fast train has pulled Changzhou and Shanghai closer together, from 38-year-old Cheng’s office in Shanghai’s Pudong District to his home in Changzhou, he must ride the subway, the fast train and finally take a taxi. He suffers at least four hours on the road.

“A trip home is far from easy.”

In 2002 Cheng left his home in Changzhou for the securities company in Shanghai. For eight years his home has been spit in two by 185 kilometers. He’s like a pendulum swinging between these two places.

“When I went to Shanghai for work, at first I just wanted a change in environment,” he said.

Cheng said he originally worked in a trust company in Changzhou. When a Shanghai securities company came recruiting, he applied without thinking about it and ended up being hired. Although Changzhou isn’t far from Shanghai, he had to live in two different places.

His daughter was two when he arrived in Shanghai. Eight years have passed in the blink of an eye but he has never been on time for his daughter’s birthday, never attended a parent’s meeting at school. Cheng feels incredibly guilty.

For his daughter’s sake, Cheng considered moving his family to Shanghai.

“But this is really too complicated.”

Consider housing first. When Cheng moved to Shanghai he never considered buying a house. Because he and his wife started working relatively early, they both had a home originally provided by their work unit. Prices in Shanghai were low and they weren’t hurried to buy. But the prices now are too high for them to handle. City center housing has climbed to nearly $90,000 per square meter. Suburban housing is nearly $30,000 per square meter.

“We couldn’t trade both our homes in Changzhou for a single home in Shanghai.”

Then consider work. Cheng’s wife is a public servant in Changzhou’s new district. She’s an integral part of her department and could not enter a similar office if she were to transfer to Shanghai. Her previous work experience would be useless. Does it seem worth it?

Speaking of the “middle class,” Cheng said he’s gone from a basic level customer service manager to the director of a customer service department. His annual salary has gone from less than $9,000 to nearly $45,000, plus his family’s two homes. Judging by his salary alone, Cheng is already part of the middle class. But during these eight years, except for returning home for the weekend, he’s lived the entire time in a rented “den” of a home in Pudong District.

“If a member of the middle class spends five out of seven days a week in a “den,” is this kind of middle class (worker) a success or a failure? It’s really hard to say.”

“I have many friends in Shanghai,” Cheng said. “But based on my observation, few have homes in Shanghai, especially the younger ones who have just started working in the past two years. Relying on one’s saving power alone, there’s fundamentally no way to deal with the world of high-priced housing.”

Cheng said there are many people these days who work in Shanghai but live in Changzhou, Wuxi or other southern Jiangsu cities. On Friday, the Shanghai Train Station is a dark mass of people hurried to get home. Although their days of brief reunion and long separation are tough, most would still choose to work in Shanghai if they could choose again because “people move toward higher ground.” Life in small to medium-sized cities like Changzhou is comfortable, but it’s easy to see a future with nothing to look forward to. The stress is high in Shanghai, but the opportunities are many.

“Life is like that. As soon as you have it, you have something to lose.”

It’s Cheng’s daughter that keeps him from giving up. He told the reporter he’s already made up his mind. He’ll definitely move his family to Shanghai within two years, putting a quick end to this “pendulum-like” life, because, “Middle school is still compulsory education. For people like me without a Shanghai Hukou (household registration), I can still bring my daughter to Shanghai for middle school. But high school is not compulsory. Bringing my daughter to Shanghai at that time wouldn’t be easy.”

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