In China, Middle-Class Affluence, Not Political Influence

China has a burgeoning middle class with growing purchasing power. Political power and influence is still out of reach, though, for the Chinese middle class. For many middle-class Chinese, being wealthy and being politically active are seen as a give-and-take trade-off of economic modernization.From Christian Science Monitor:

Money, he believes, is the only possible passport to some sort of personal autonomy in the absence of political freedom.

“The current political situation means that ordinary people have no influence,” Liu says. “For my parents, so long as their interests are not violated they don’t care who is in charge. But we are different.”

That does not make Xu hopeful, though. “We’d like more influence, but I don’t think it’s going to happen in China,” she laments.

“In theory, the Constitution gives everyone the right to vote; but in reality, the law is not enforced,” adds her husband. “Nobody has ever asked me to vote, and I’ve never even seen a ballot paper. Even my class monitor in elementary school was not elected.”

But even if they have little faith in government accountability, they do have faith in the power of the yuan to ensure well-being. Two years ago, Liu recalls, thousands of Chinese infants were poisoned by adulterated locally made baby formula. “Middle-class people could afford to buy imported formula. Ordinary people had to use the poisoned stuff. If you have money, you can have a better life. We can only try to earn as much as possible to reduce the government’s influence over our lives to a minimum,” he explains. “All we can do is earn a lot of money to avoid harm.”

Thinking about anything else of more social or political import, Liu sighs, “is useless. I forget all of it when I work. The only thing we can do is to busy our heads and earn money.”

McKinsey&Company estimated that China’s lower-middle class and upper middle class would rapidly increase in this decade. They project that by 2025, China’s middle class will equal more than half of its total urban population. From McKinsey Quarterly:

As this economic tide rises, we anticipate two phases of steep growth in the middle class, with waves of consumers in distinct income brackets emerging and receding at specific points. The first wave, in 2010, will be the lower middle class, defined as households with annual incomes of 25,001 to 40,000 renminbi. A decade later the upper middle class, with annual household incomes of 40,001 to 100,000 renminbi, will follow. These numbers may seem low compared with consumer incomes in the world’s richest countries—current exchange rates and relative prices tend to underplay China’s buying power—but such people are solidly middle class by global standards. When accounting for purchasing-power parity, a household income of 100,000 renminbi, for instance, buys a lifestyle in China similar to that of a household earning $40,000 in the United States.

By around 2011 the lower middle class will number some 290 million people, representing the largest segment in urban China and accounting for about 44 percent of the urban population, according to our model. Growth in this group should peak around 2015, with a total spending power of 4.8 trillion renminbi. A second transition is projected to occur in the following decade, when hundreds of millions will join the upper middle class. By 2025 this segment will comprise a staggering 520 million people—more than half of the expected urban population of China—with a combined total disposable income of 13.3 trillion renminbi.

There is still much debate among academics as to whether or not China’s middle-class will be an engine for political change. Some argue that the middle-class may be looking for stability and economic opportunity rather than political change, others see increased democratic consciousness in the new middle-class.  Dr. Yang Jing from National University of Singapore provides a good summary regarding the socio-political attitudes of the Chinese middle-class:

Most recent research shows that China’s middle class actually hold a mix of both liberalistic and conservative views due to their divergent backgrounds and life experiences (Li Chunling 2009). They tend to have more positive feelings about democracy and high expectation of social justice, and show more confidence in participating in politics. Most of them hope to benefit from the economic growth and maintain their current lifestyle; they are therefore more prepared to be subservient to an authoritarian state for economic security and sociopolitical stability (see Table 4).

Table 9 shows that middle class as a whole appears to be more openminded regarding the pursuit of democracy (S1), and shows higher confidence in participating in politics (S4) than working class and agricultural labour class. They are aware of the income gap and agreeable to taxing the rich to help the poor; they also show a higher rate of acceptance on the pursuit of profit to sustain economic growth.

Within the middle class, there are differences in sociopolitical attitudes. The new middle class with more cultural capital shows most democratic consciousness. The old middle class tends to be more mindful of its own financial situation. They hold relatively conservative political views and are more likely to support state authoritarianism and have the least consciousness of social inequality and justice. The marginal middle class is comparatively more vulnerable and therefore more sympathetic toward the lower class, exhibiting stronger sense of social justice and democracy than the old middle class.

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