China’s growing middle class, a group that almost every business on this planet wants to get hold of, isn’t one that is easy to define, partly due to China’s unique model of development; and partly due to the country’s own history and culture.
British newspaper The Times recently gave another try at deciphering the mindsets and lifestyles of the Chinese middle class. But Chinese netizens, many of whom are, presumably, either from middle class families or are part of the cohort themselves, don’t seem to agree with what the newspaper has categorized as the Chinese middle class life.
“She loves Gucci handbags, buys organic food from Tesco (Beijing branch), has an IKEA kitchen, smuggles formula milk from Hong Kong, uses an app to track the pollution in Beijing, loves BBC’s Sherlock series.
He drives a Hyundai Tucson SUV, wants a BMW SUV, smokes Hongtashan cigarettes, owns a Canan EOS-60D camera and an iPad2, wants to buy a property aboard, is obsessed with British private school.”
Thus goes the description of “How the Chinese middle class really live.” If we can ignore the unconscious (or conscious) emphasis on British brands, it seems a pretty decent depiction of a middle class family (In fact, if we replace BBC’s Sherlock series with American TV dramas, and British private school with US Ivy League, it’s much more convincing.)
However, none of the Chinese netizens on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblogging service, and Douban.com, China’s most active online community for movie music and book reviews, seems to agree with The Times. To them, a Chinese middle class family should live a much fancier life. Like netizen Gary原创 commented: “The British are making a joke of the Chinese middle class.”
Much of the disagreement comes from the brands mentioned in the description. For example, netizen KK爱在Mayday pointed out: “I think the middle class in China should at least use Chanel. Gucci is for old ladies who sell vegetables in the market.” 付昊_轮印前行 went on: “Chinese middle class drive BMV. Hyundai is for losers.” Netizen 张幼驹 commented: “Smuggling formula milk, watching Sherlock, and buying Hongtashan cigarette. These are all behaviors of a loser.” Netizen Annie asked: “An IKEA kitchen counts as middle-class? Are you kidding me?” 阿华甜 has the same question: “Isn’t IKEA for the poor?” Netizen 叶子Cathy picked on Tesco: “Serious? The Tesco in Beijing is almost in the country.”
In one word, as netizen 快乐成长的小鱼 concluded: “This is not how the Chinese middle class really live. This is how the Chinese middle losers live.”
Criticism aside, some other netizens started to shift to a more interesting discussion of whether the concept of a Chinese middle class makes sense at all. Netizen A-l-i-z-a weighed in: “In my opinion, China has never experienced a period that is good for a healthy middle class to grow. We step into an M-shape society directly – more poor and more rich, but very few middle class.”
Today, a report from the Wall Street Journal quoted statistics from McKinsey & Co, and estimated that the Chinese middle class, with annual disposable income of between $16,000 and $34,000, make up only 6% of the urban population in China. By that definition, many of China’s middle class may not even be able to afford the life depicted by The Times, given the higher prices of houses, cars and even a Starbucks coffee. But apparently, Chinese netizens have much higher expectations of a middle class lifestyle.
Many netizens concluded that the description by The Times showed that the West knows nothing about China and its middle class. But could it be that it’s the Chinese themselves who don’t understand themselves? Many of China’s netizens, mostly urban youth and young professionals, are exactly the middle class that many brands try hard to sell. And yet, they don’t seem to think themselves live up to the label.
For whatever reason, the possession of luxury brands (luxury even by Western standards), instead of premium brands, is seen as the symbol of middle class. China’s nouveau riche, with rapidly growing disposable income in the past 2 decades, moves directly from “I know no brand” to “I want the best brand.” A product is either for the mass market, or for the affluent. In a sense, many Chinese equal middle class with rich.
Another possible reason of the lack of self-identification is the fact that the Chinese middle class aren’t living an easy life. In no means can China be said to have a strong middle class. The feeling of lack of security is paramount with sky-rocking property prices, deteriorating food safety, increasingly unbearable pollution, and the pressure from a 4-2-1 family structure, thanks to the one-child policy (a typical working couple needs to support 4 grandparents and 1 kid).
In this whole discussion of the Chinese middle class, the most interesting piece is that all, except for the cigarette, are foreign made. There is no doubt that China’s rising middle class look to their Western counterparts for aspirations – being foreign means middle-class. But something is lost in translation.