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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.

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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.

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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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