The Seven Troubles of the Chinese Middle-Class

This is a continuation of the yesterday's post about the Six Dilemmas of the Chinese Middle-Class.  These are not dilemmas in the sense of being forced between two options.  Rather, they are either multiple choices, or else irksome problems with no obvious solution.

Trouble #1:  What will your next vacation travel destination be?

Currently, a citizen only needs an identity card and the residential permit to proceed directly to the Public Security Bureau to apply for a passport which will come in not more than 15 days.  This makes the middle-class ecstatic, because they can now go anywhere in the world.

But this is when the trouble starts.  When it was not so easy to get a passport, people just won't bother to travel outside.  Since they have passports now, they have a lot more travel options.  Will they go to Hawaii?  Or will they go to Paris?  There are disagreements among household members, and they can't even make up their own minds.

Trouble #2: Should they invest in stocks or foreign currencies?

A grandmother comes home at noon and complains: "I have to watch in stocks prices, then I have to come home to cook and then I have to fetch the grandchildren.  I am so worn out."  Her daughter-in-law says: "We don't lack money in this family, so you shouldn't give up worrying about the stock market."  Grandmother said: "But I am not going to let the money sit around and do nothing."

According to government statistics, the most popular investments among the middle-class are stocks, foreign currencies and real estate.  When there are too many options, the middle-class people begin to agonize about which is the most profitable and safest way to put their money.

Trouble #3:  How to choose among so many apartments?

A media planner at an advertising agency is worried about where to buy an apartment.  His mother prefers one building, but his girl prefers some other one.  He says: "There were very few apartments once upon a time.  These days, there are advertisements everywhere.  Everything is excellent and everything is unique and special.  We don't know how to choose."

Following the drive towards constructing houses for the well-off people, there are more and more new apartment buildings with reasonable prices.  The middle-class people are delighted, but when there are too many choices, it is hard to choose.  They spend their weekends just looking at apartments one after another, and they cannot even convince themselves as to which is the best choice.

Trouble #4: It is easy to get fat and hard to stay slim.

Fitness is not just a matter of physical health, since it includes other meanings about the middle-class image.  According to Paul Fussell in Class: "Your body weight is the statement of your social class."  Prior to the economic reform, being obese is a sign of success.  But those days are long gone.  Today, being obese is a sign of the lower-middle class.

Within the middle-class, being obese means that the person is unhealthy and aesthetically unsightly.  Eating too well and getting no exercise are the reasons why the middle-class are getting fatter.  It is fashionable for the middle-class to work hard to lose weight and stay trim.

According to information from a certain gymnasium, about 80% of their customers regardless of age and gender come to them to reduce weight.  Most of them had gained weight because they ate too well and did not exercise enough.  So they had to come to the gym to pay to suffer.  But no matter how hard one works, including drinking special diet teas, using weight-reduction ointments and eating diet pills, the weight will not go down overnight.  You can diet, jog, drink tea, use ointments and eat a half a roomful of pills for months, and you still weigh the same as before.

Trouble #5: The children think sweet but not bitter

"When we were young, we cannot buy rice just with cash.  We needed a food coupon and then we had to Food Store #10 and queued for one to two hours before we can buy it."

"What is a 'food coupon'?  What is 'Food Store #10'?  Why can't you buy rice with money?  Are you making this story up?"

This is the conversation between a middle-class old lady and an 8-year-old girl.  The trouble for the old lady was that the notions of food coupons, food stores and queuing for food are incomprehensible to the little girl who grew up in comfort.

A teacher at a Shanghai school said that it is difficult to get any resonance with today's students if he tried to get them to 'think about the bitterness of the past in order to appreciate the sweetness of the present.'  In the past, one ate wild vegetables because one was hungry; today, one ate wild vegetables for health reasons (and one probably has to pay a lot to buy them).  What is bitterness?

The middle-class is worried that the next generation will have no sense of the hardship of the past.

Trouble #6: It is easy to communicate but difficult to see each other

As line telephones and mobile telephones become more common, the middle-class people increase their communication with each other, but paradoxically they meet each other much less than before.

Once upon a time, they would meet for tea, or have a meal at a restaurant.  This was a characteristics of middle-class lifestyle.  When friends or relatives have not met for some time, they would go to a teahouse or a restaurant, exchange news and chat.  This was how friendship grew.

Today, there are more telephones around and people just call each other.  The middle-class need to think of a reason or an opportunity to meet with the entire family, but this is always difficult when everyone seems to working so hard to earn money.

"When we graduated from university, there were more than 20 of us in Beijing.  Although we all live in the same city and we call each other often, we seldom meet each other.  We meet just about once a year.  It is hard, because we are busy working and time is money for us.  Many times we tried to get together but either someone is busy or someone else is away on business.  It is so hard to meet."

Trouble #7:  It is so hard to replace consumer electronic items.

The middle-class homes are filled with consumer electronics.

"Once up a time, we only earned dozens of RMB per month.  In the mid-1970's, one family paid more than 100 RMB to purchase a 9" black-and-white television set, and that caused a sensation in the neighborhood.  Today, the typical citizen of Guangzhou earns hundreds of times more than that, and it means nothing to spend a few thousand RMB to buy a wide-screen television set."

People have more money even as the price of consumer electronic goods are falling rapidly.  The direct result is that people have more consumer electronics.  It is no big deal to have several color television sets.  It is difficult to even count how many items are inside the home.

When there are so many items inside the home, it becomes a chore to keep them clean.  One cannot easily buy new items because there are already so many almost unbreakable items at home already.

A white-collar worker at a foreign-capital firm in Beijing just spent 4,000 RMB to purchase a Haier clothes washing machine.  But this weekend, she saw another new model with more functions and simpler operations.  She laments: "How can I keep up with the ever changing products?"

These dilemmas and troubles faced by the Chinese middle-class are not unique to China, as middle-class people in other countries go through similar types of angsts and experiences.  These two posts could have been transferred to other places (e.g. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Mexico, etc) and they will still work.

It must be remembered that this information here did not some from any scientific survey as such.  Rather, this came from a distillation of discussions, comments and analyses from a selected group of people under some restrictions.  In particular, it should be quite clear that the subject of politics would not be broached here.  Therefore, we do not know anything about the political values, attitudes and opinions of the Chinese middle-class from here.  If you want to use the words 'amoral individualism,' you are extrapolating but you are more likely right than not.