In the early 1990's when Deng Xiaoping had his ‘Wall Street’ moment announcing "to get rich is glorious" there did not exist in China a 'Middle Class' or anything vaguely similar.
However, by the late 1990‘s, as China’s economic rocket took off a 'Middle Class' was said by analysts and commentators to be 'emerging'. The west got very excited about it. They seemed to assume that this emergent, if in fact it existed, would change the very fabric and direction of China. Democracy would naturally descend upon China and the world would rest easy as the last great communist regime dissolved.
But what is a 'Middle Class' that is capable of wringing these profound changes, and, does there exist a true 'Middle Class' in China?
Definitions are endless. Economists, analysts and commentators say it can be assessed on myriad of criterion: income, assets, lifestyle, education and employment categories, or, a combination of some or all of the foregoing
All these experts seem to agree, despite their disparate methods, that there exists now in China a 'Middle Class'
Having arrived at that conclusion they each expound on how this 'Middle Class' will effect China be it economically, politically, culturally, drawing, of course, on Western experience of the dynamics of a 'Middle Class'
But is their conclusion that there exists a 'Middle Class',with all it’s attendant connotations, and, ergo, their predictions for China, premised on that conclusion, correct?
I would argue not.
The pundits have defined ‘Middle Class’ based totally on numeration and materialism; money or things obtained through having the means for discretionary spending. In other words they believe nothing exists but matter and spiritual issues play no part in their definitions
I will look at ‘Middle Class’ not defined by money or what money buys but the mindset that comes from feeling 'Middle Class' and the way a mature 'Middle Class' interacts with society as a whole.
Middle Class in the Western World
The existence of a 'Middle Class' in the western and developed world is a fairly recent phenomenon having it’s genesis with the First World War almost 100 years ago. It was not until after the Second World War, particularly in the late fifties and sixties, that a middle class truly emerged as a very distinct entity which started to effect society as a whole, economically, politically and culturally.
We, in the developed west, now have a 'Middle Class' fully evolved culturally and politically. I use the world evolved because that is what it has done, over time, to become what it is, what it represents and what it’s power and importance is today.
The 'Middle Class' we see today, its norms, it’s values, it’s importance in all aspects of society evolved learning about itself as it grew, altering, changing and metamorphosing itself into what it now is.
Today, in the West, it is the backbone of economy and society. The ballast that keeps the ship trim, if you will, a living breathing checks and balance. It’s importance is such in the West that if the middle class gets a sniffle the western world will get an almighty cold.
The West’s ‘Middle Class’ has earned the right to now be defined simply in monetary terms of income or assets, of lifestyle, because a system of being 'Middle Class' and a full understanding of what a 'Middle Class' is and represents has fully evolved. Therefore if you have A you are therefore B and you act C. And everyone who is not 'Middle Class' knows what to expect from you and how to interact with you.
Now this is not the case in China. Yes, in monetary terms and lifestyle terms, a thing resembling a 'Middle Class' can be observed. It meets the income, assets, lifestyle criteria of being 'Middle Class' in a materialistic way. But with China it is not a case of “if it looks like it is, if it smells like it is, if it taste like it is it must be..”
Every social system existing in humanity has required an in situ evolution. A social system can not be learned from a book. It can not be imposed, bought or wished for, it must be learnt and earned over a considerable period of time.
One generation will start the ball rolling, it will stumble fall and get up. It will slowly over time learn from it’s mistakes. The next will have learned from history, make their own changes over which they too will stumble, fall and get up and they will learn. And so the process continues.
China’s so called 'Middle Class' does not exist because, whilst a certain sector of Chinese society has money, it does not have the life skills, experience or an evolved system to function as a true “middle class” as we in the west know it and with all the good things that 'Middle Classes' bring to society as a whole.
Lets explore this quickly.
China’s so called 'Middle Class' far from being the backbone of Chinese society, as in the West, is wracked with anxiety, insecurity and a degree of fear. It is aimless, searching, wandering.
The commentators expect of them to have learned in the course of a decade what the West’s 'Middle Class' took a century to learn and do so in a completely different and far more adversarial environment, culturally and politically.
They have not come to a realisation as to where they slot in between the old culture and some nebulous new culture seemingly on offer. Nor have the 'higher ups' or working class worked out their relationships to it..
Their position vis a vis the next class up and the class below has not been settled to any ones satisfaction unlike in the west. They are not in a 'comfort zone'.
In the west the ‘Middle Class’ is all powerful and respected by all other classes. It controls the bulk of the money and therefore it’s effect on the economies of the world is great, it’s political clout is immense. In China these Noveau Riche are virtually powerless in relation to the ruling class and generally through their ostentatious lifestyle, the kid in the lolly shop, not particularly admired by the working class.
In the west a thriving positive ‘Middle Class' functions effectively because there is no ceiling. Bubbles that wish to can reach the very top, bubbles that wish to just float can and others can sink, not so in China.There is a 'glass ceiling' and that is the CCP. Chinese culture requires you be seen to keep 'rising' but there is nowhere to rise to. You can put all your hopes and aspirations on your children but they too will feel the same constraints. The only alternative will be to go abroad.
In China the Nouveau Riche lack maturity because not only are they on the first rung on the evolutionary ladder as a social and political entity but also, because of China’s incredible economic growth and their rapid promotion, these people are biologically younger in years than their western counterparts.
No this group of people do not constitute a ‘Middle Class’ in the Western sense. They show some of the attributes but, at the moment, and for a long time to come, they are just a group of people that earn more money than the group of people below them.