In China, middle-class affluence, not political influence

A new Volkswagen and a Singapore vacation are the badges of affluence for one Chinese couple. But consumer choice, not political choice, is the only freedom China's middle class now enjoy.

By , Staff writer

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    Members of the newly minted Chinese middle class checked specs of apartment models (left) at a real estate fair in Beijing last month.
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The cramped two-room apartment filled with cheap, mismatched furniture where Liu Likang lives with his wife, Xu Yao, would hardly pass for a middle-class dwelling in America. Uncarpeted, lit by a harsh light bulb hanging from the ceiling without a shade, the rented bedroom-cum-sitting room looks more like temporary student lodgings. Outside on the street, however, sits their brand-new Volkswagen sedan, a sleek status symbol that proclaims the young couple's achievements and ambitions as a pair of Internet start-up employees who are going places.

These are the sort of people whose historical equivalents in 18th- and 19th-century Europe developed political ambitions to match their economic status and fueled the rise of democracy.

Mr. Liu laughs at the suggestion that the same thing might happen in 21st-century China. "Undeniably, the people in power hope the country will develop and people will have a better life," he says. "But the bottom line is that the people should not challenge their power. We have given up hope of changing the government."

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Still, Liu and Ms. Xu are thankful for the enormous differences between their lives and those of their parents: Liu's dad was a truck driver, Xu's was an electrician, and both were assigned their jobs by the government. "My parents earned just enough to feed the family, and they thought only about how to support us, not about making a better life or improving themselves," says Xu. "Our generation has the opportunity to do that."

She is now a product development manager at Alibaba.com, China's biggest online trading site, and her husband is a software engineer at another Chinese Internet success story, Kaixin001, a Facebook-style site. Unlike their parents, says Liu, "I can either stay with this company or find a job at another one. I am totally free to do that."

Those jobs earn the couple about $30,000 a year between them – not much by Western standards, but twice the average salary in Beijing and five times the national average in China. Recently they went on their first holiday abroad – a trip to Singapore organized by Liu's employer – but most of their spare money goes to car payments, and they do not indulge in luxuries like fancy clothes, preferring jeans and T-shirts, which allows them to save a little each month.

By most yardsticks, they are a middle-class couple – beneficiaries of the economic boom driven by China's state-dominated capitalism. A range of different sorts of white-collar people – entrepreneurs, employees of large state-owned enterprises and multinational companies, party and government officials, lawyers, doctors, and teachers – make up the middle class. By those criteria, these 300 million Chinese (25 percent of the population) are middle-class. The international consulting firm McKinsey & Company forecasts that by 2025 those numbers will have more than doubled to constitute 40 percent of the population.

But Liu and Xu do not think of themselves like that.

"We are better-paid working class," says Liu, for whom only an annual income of $150,000 would put someone in the "middle class" bracket, able to enjoy all the material perks he associates with that status. "I dream about that day and night," he adds with a laugh.

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."

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