The Six Dilemmas of the Chinese Middle-Class

There must be dozens of definitions of the Chinese middle-class, most of which are based upon some consideration of socio-economic and demographic factors.  Here, I am not interested in the technical issues because they lead to interminable and irresolvable arguments.  Instead, I am interested in taking this to the next step.

Being middle-class implies having enough money to spend on things beyond the basic necessities.  But what will the middle-class spend their money on?  Here are some ways:

They won't be able to do all of these things at the same time, because they have neither the money nor the time.  And they may not even want to do some of these things at all.  So what do the middle-class really want?  And are their reasons?  This information is important for economy planners, marketers and advertisers, as well as political scientists.

I am going to translate a section from the book titled Investigation of the Chinese Middle Class.  This selection is titled: The Six Big Dilemmas of the Chinese Middle-Class: To Want Them Or Not.  This scheme was not based upon a formal survey study, but was derived from analyses and discussions on the Internet from which came these six issues which appeared often enough.  Therefore, this is not a scientific study in any sense.  As a reminder, a dilemma is a "state of uncertainty or perplexity, especially as requiring a choice between equally unfavorable options."  So this is a series of six "Yes or No" questions.

Dilemma 1: Do I want children or not?

The cost of raising a child is high.  For a middle-class couple, raising a child involves not only a huge financial investment, but it also involves investment of personal time.  For a middle-class family, if the wife is a white-collar worker or a principal wage-earner, then being pregnant and then nursing the baby may take more than two years of time off.  This will undoubtedly affect family income significantly while the cost of raising the child is considerable as well.  Thus, having a child may lead to a lowering of the quality of life.

In Chinese, there is a saying: "There are three kinds of filial impieties, of which not having children is the worst."  Even if one is not concerned about having no one to take care of oneself in old age, one ought to think about having children to continue the family lineage.  Thus, one is constantly reminded by everyone to have a child.  As the middle-class folks grow older, this problem becomes more urgent on the personal agenda.  When one meets one's parents, they always drop subtle (and unsubtle) hints.

One respondent said: "You can't treat a child like a dog by dumping them with your retired parents and not caring yourself.  Do I want a child?  This problem came up three years ago, and I still have not come to a decision."

Dilemma 2: Do I want an MBA degree or not?

The following Internet post appeared:

These days, an MBA is like a lottery ticket which has a 100% winning percentage.  If you buy one, you will win a grand prize.  That is why people figured all sorts of ways to go to the other side of the world and spend a couple of years, come back speaking fluent English and make millions of dollars.

But good things don't last.  The MBA is being devalued rapidly, and only fools don't know that.  Internationally, besides the MBA from a few famous schools, the rest of them are like degrees from our technical night schools.  As for the MBA degrees obtained in China, they only serve as desserts for those chief executives who are barely literate.

There are enough fools left in China who still want to get MBA's.

"To study for an MBA or not?  I don't know, but everyone around me is," said one respondent.  His comments reflect the uncertainly of the middle-class about diplomas and degrees.  On one hand, diplomas and degrees are losing their values, because people pay more attention to experience and ability.  On the other hand, human resources centers usually consider academic attainment an important factor, and they would not consider you unless you have the right kind of degree.  This has placed the middle-class in a blind.

At the same time, the so-called MBA courses are "game plays" that are far removed from real-life management and administration.  Spending 70,000 or 80,000 RMB will have smaller returns than learning by practicing.

If going to school is a waste of time and money that only yields a paper diploma, then the answer should be: NO.  Yet, when the time comes to look for a job, this may be the factor that would clinch a high factor.

Dilemma 3:  Do I want a notebook computer or not?

If this was seven or eight years ago, the middle-class person would have definitely said yes, because lugging a piece of metal that weighs a few kilograms on the road impresses people.  When people ask you what it is, you just smile meekly and say: "Oh, nothing much.  A notebook computer."  And the people look at you with respect.

But things are different now.  When a bunch of recent computer engineering graduates runs around with notebooks, this phenomenon is no longer novel.  In fact, it is downright uncool.  When someone brings a notebook into a Starbucks and plugs it, he should not expect the girls to admire him.  More likely, she will say, "Idiot!  You have to come here to work?"

Yet, in this information society, the computer has become as common as a writing pen and it would be a problem sometimes without one when one needs to make some notes, look up information or retrieve a letter.

To carry a notebook computer or not is a difficult choice for the middle-class today.

Dilemma 4:  On the Internet, do you want to be truthful or deceitful?

The first story is about a young man working for a foreign capital firm in Beijing.  He uses ICQ a lot and eventually connected with a girl from Shandong.  They found that they liked each other, and they exchanged telephone numbers and spoke by phone.  Eventually, the girl came and he saw that she was bright and pretty.  So he invited her to move in with him.  Several days later, the girl vanished with his 8,000 RMB savings and his notebook computer.  Now he said: "I believed that a person's honesty and integrity cannot be affected by the lies on the Internet.  But after this affair, I don't know if I ought to be truthful or deceitful anymore."

The second story is about a young woman working for an IT firm.  When she uses ICQ, she assumes a false identity; she lied about where she lives, where she works, how old she is and all that.  She was just a 'false' persona.  She made a male friend over ICQ, and after six months, she found out that he was knowledgeable, well-tempered, has a masters degree from a famous university and works a manager at a foreign capital firm.  Everything he said appears to be reliable.

So they finally met in person, and the woman told the man her real identity and age.  He was stunned for a moment and then he said, "88."  (note: this is a homonym for Bye-Bye).  She said: "Why?"  He said: "We have chatted for more than six months and you lied to me all this time.  This shows that you have so little trust and honesty towards a society in which there are more good people than bad people and where good wins over bad.  You just don't have a proper understanding of this society.  We are not suited for each other."  Then he got up and left.

The lovelorn woman reflected: "Is the Internet for real or not real?  Many of my friends were cheated on the Internet.  Why did I have to encounter a genuine person?  Why did I have to love him?"

Dilemma 5:  Do I want an automobile or a bicycle?

In 1988, a man bought a small apartment in Guangzhou.  At the time, everyone only wanted some  place -- any place, actually -- to live in, and they did not consider about having a parking space.  But this has become a problem for him.  When he gets off work, the parking lot is full.  These days, many people have cars and parking space becomes hard to find.  The man said: "It used to be tiring to take the public bus.  It is now even more tiring to find a parking space.  Yesterday I went to the Trade Center, and it took me more than 40 minutes to find a parking space that was more than two kilometers away.

If finding a parking space was tiring, it is even more annoying to when there is traffic congestion.

A resident of Beijing has given up driving, because it took him 40 minutes to get to work by car under the normal congestion but only 25 minutes on a bicycle.

When the traffic flows, cars move a lot faster; when the traffic stalls, bicycles are faster.  When there is no parking space, the car may have to be parked far away whereas the bicycle could be stationed anywhere.  When one drives all the time, one gets no exercise; although bicycling is hard work, it is healthy exercise.  When you buy a car, it will cost a lot more money than a bicycle.

The middle-class does not know whether to get a car or not anymore.

Dilemma 6:  Do you want the humanities or not?

Many of the middle-class members have received university education, and so they have some acquaintence of and need for the humanities.  Yet, they have been bogged down in materialistic struggles, and what little time that they have are given to mostly to family.  Whenever they encounter one or two approachable academics who can quote and discuss with ease, they feel sorry for themselves about their lack of cultural riches.

Afterwards, they may go buy books, but they end up with books that the academics may scoff at (such as Poor Daddy, Rich Daddy; China Can Say No; Paul Fussell's Class; and so on).  Yet, when they read the more sophisticated books such as Listening to Lectures at Beijing University, they feel too far removed from the humanities.  Somewhere, they see that they have lost something that was most precious to them amidst the noisy world.  During those moments, the middle-class feel despair.

On one hand, they are gradually desensitized by the increasing popularized and professionalized humanities.  On the other hand, they try to recharge their values by reading the fashionable magazines but still falling behind because they can neither grasp the essence nor keep up the pace ...

Do they want the humanities or not?  The middle-class is vexed.

[Editor's note: Dilemma 6 is dispiriting, to say the least.  I thought that you are supposed to do something because you enjoy it, or because it satisfies some basic need.  So why would you want to do something just because it meets some academic type's approval?  Have you really internalized someone else's so-called values as if they were absolutes?  This is the kind of moment when I mutter against the 'trahison des clercs' with Charles Baudelaire ...]

Next Part: The Seven Worries of the Chinese Middle-Class