Is the burgeoning middle class of China just a big myth?

To find out, see the piece I wrote over at Living in China. Interesting, how gullible the world can be.

Update: From Stephen Frost of Asian Labour News: “I’ve linked to the original Chinese article on which the Straits Times article was based and two others in the same issue disucssing what the middle class is or isn’t. They’re all in Chinese. You can find my links at: – scroll down to the second update for all three links.”

Up-update: Adam, too, has a post about this that differs markedly from my own. I comment about it in the comments here and at his site.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

You’ve made a fatal mistake in forgetting about the purchasing power of a Chinese white collar’s monthly salary. You can go a long way with 4000RMB (less than 500 USD) a month even in most Chinese cities. Therefore, by their standards, it’s not a myth!

January 28, 2004 @ 1:57 am | Comment

To further my point, It’s unfair for westerners like youself to impose your western ideals and standards on a developing country like China, and preach your opinions on issues such as democracy, economics and the rest….

“Chinese view the West through a telescope, everything they see is magnified and good; Westerners like you, view China through the same telescope but at the other end. Everything you see is minimised and bad.”

– a quote from a book written by a group of anonymous Chinese
writers called “China can say no!”
It’s a pity you can’t read it because I guess you dont even speak the language.

January 28, 2004 @ 2:12 am | Comment

Hey Rich, my thought was: if it’s a trend, a fad, to say you’re middle class… well, that’s pretty middle class, wouldn’t you say? Embracing that sort of “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality?

As for you, finafail:
1) This is a Chinese researcher making these claims about it being “a myth”. Take it up with Li Chunling.
2) You’re right, the rise in salary for these people is enormous. Look at retired cadres, they never got what the cadres now have. The question is, what do you call middle class? Meanwhile, Mastercard is in China and says the “middle class” is defined as making 5000USD a year. Most of the people in that survey aren’t making that much.
3) China Can Say No also said the Chinese Govt. was too soft with the Americans and the govt. should say “no”. It was supported by the far “left”, with a forward by Yu Quanyu.

So why is Mastercard here to begin with? Did the govt. listen?

January 28, 2004 @ 3:41 am | Comment

Finafail, I certainly did take into account the purchasing power in China. What I specifically point to — and read it again if you don’t believe me — is the worldwide perception as generated by the media that China has a vast middle class that is about to travel through the world and spend vast sums of money. So the main point is about their purchasing power outside of China.

But still, let’s look at the purchasing power of the average white collar worker in China. As I said, those I know make between $260 and $1,000 a month. Can most of these people live a middle class life in China on that salary? Can they put down a down payment on a house, buy a car, enjoy a generally comfortable life and go on an occasional cruise, or at least some travel with their family? At the very highest level, maybe (though I’m skeptical). At the lowest, the notion is simply absurd.

January 28, 2004 @ 7:54 am | Comment

Next point, Finafail. You write:

“It’s unfair for westerners like youself to impose your western ideals and standards on a developing country like China, and preach your opinions on issues such as democracy, economics and the rest….”

I never imposed my standards on anyone. The report, the description of China’s middle class as a big lie comes from a Chinese researcher. Some terms are global, or else they are meaningless. If you read the article, it defines what it means by middle class and how Li measured whether participants met the standards, which are universal (purchasing power, income, etc.). So don’t throw back that tired line about “You Westerners always impose youir values blah blah blah.” It’s a matter of facts, not Western or Asian values: Does China have a huge middle class that is about to travel and buy foreign goodsalong the lines desacribed by the modern media? The answer is no — at least not yet.

January 28, 2004 @ 8:00 am | Comment

Dave, good comments – if I read them first, I would not have replied to Finafail. You did it much better.

January 28, 2004 @ 8:01 am | Comment

Most people who perceive themselves as middle class just look at their neighbors and if they’re roughly the same, they’re middle class. So while the article makes valid statistical points, I’m not sure the people who consider themselves middle class are necessarily wrong. I sometimes watch Little Rascals reruns and marvel that these people were considered middle class when the TV show was made.

Also, I wonder how common the practice of hiding income is in China? I heard it was quite common compared to the US, for a variety of cultural reasons.

January 28, 2004 @ 8:38 am | Comment

Hello Finafail: I’d urge you to follow the link Richard pasted in his update to my site and read the 3 articles in Chinese on the issue. The first one discusses Dr Li’s claims that the middle class is a myth (Li’s research is the basis of the article to which Richard refers). The other two articles to which I link discuss the middle class in general, and are companion pieces to the one on Li’s research (they are all published in the same issue of China Newsweek). However, the English-language article by Chua Chin Hon to which Richard linked pretty much captures the main conclusions of Li’s research.

As for China Can Say No: Was it never translated into English? I never kept up with it. However, the central premise(s) were discussed fairly widely at the time (the mid-90s). I even seem to remember a couple of the authors (they weren’t anonymous, were they?) publishing something in English in an American journal. It would be interesting to revisit the book’s predictions: that young Chinese no longer want to emulate American values; that they would rather look East than embrace Western values; and so on. In fact the more I think about it, the more it brings home just how much China has changed since the book was written (and only a decade ago). The Internet was unkown in China, the great shift of migrants to coastal cities was just starting, Shanghai was only just beginning to open up, the great surge of investment was just gathering steam, and so on. The more I think about it, the more I’d like to see someone critically assess the book’s thesis in light of what is in some ways a new China.

January 28, 2004 @ 4:41 pm | Comment

Don’t you think my post is worth the “update special” in this post. I’m not one to beg for links — but sheesh I destroyed your argument … that’s worth a link …. 🙂

January 28, 2004 @ 9:53 pm | Comment

Adam, I commented on your own site about it. I think you misunderstood the premise of the article — that the middle class in China is not the middle class others perceive it to be, and its effects on world economies in terms of travel and retail sales of high-end products (not mobile phones and Starbucks coffee) won’t even come close to levels expected due to all the mythologizing.

January 29, 2004 @ 7:52 am | Comment

China: Update on middle-class debate

On Tuesday, Richard (of Peking Duck) and I both posted comments on a Singapore Straits Times article claiming that the Chinese middle class is a myth. The Straits Times piece summarised several articles published in China Newsweek earlier in the…

January 29, 2004 @ 10:53 am | Comment

68.7% of Chinese fed up with opinion surveys

A new survey, by the little known “Shunyi Mei You International Institute of Arthritis”, shows that China has rejected opinion polls as they interfere with lunch. 68.7% of people commented that they were sick of being interviewed every time they

January 29, 2004 @ 6:20 pm | Comment

The links to articles critical of China’s so-called expanding middle class are blocked in China.

However, you can read articles printed by Xinhua News and China News stating that China’s middle class is now about 18% of the population.

Oh, well . . .

reader in Beijing

January 21, 2005 @ 12:00 am | Comment

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