Middle Kingdom's Middle Class

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Western bourgeois tendencies have infiltrated Communist China again. Li Qing is living proof.

The 30-year-old fashion designer goes to work wearing shapely Chanel shirts and pricey Prada shoes. She zips around Beijing in a sporty Japanese car and lives in a spacious suburban villa. Li's home is stocked with Chinese antiques and furniture from one of her favorite local stores, I-jia--or IKEA.

Almost everything about Li, from her job to her interests to her lifestyle, proclaims her membership in one of the fastest-growing segments of Chinese society: the middle class.

Not long ago, folks like Li were reviled, denounced during the Cultural Revolution as "enemies of the people" and "loyal sons of the bourgeoisie."

Now their star is on the rise, and class consciousness is on the rebound--but from a consumerist, not a Communist, point of view. More and more Chinese professionals, entrepreneurs, artists and intellectuals are happily identifying themselves as members of the middle class--with the accessories to prove it. Class struggle has been replaced by mass aspiration.

Experts estimate that China's new bourgeoisie makes up only 1% to 2% of the total population, or about 13 million to 26 million people.

But their self-awareness, their newfound power to choose and their ability to set the social agenda have given them an influence far beyond their numbers. They are smart, confident, optimistic. They emphasize quality of life--and are increasingly able to pay for it. They work and socialize with like-minded people, forming loose networks with fellow travelers on the road to greater personal freedom and fulfillment.

"If you look at the surveys, people like me count for about 10% of the total work force in urban areas," Li said. "But the influence of this class is way beyond 10%."

Merchants covet them. Advertisers target them. And, in an ironic twist, the Communist regime needs them, relying on the middle class to fuel economic growth and promote social stability.

The same government that once vilified the bourgeoisie now craves its support, or at least docility, in the face of growing discontent among the masses it still claims to represent.

"We're the vested interests now," acknowledged Xu Lei, 29, an employee at a foreign consulting firm in Beijing. "We don't like change, and we don't like chaos."

It's a remarkable development for a nation whose official dogma still embraces Marxism and the notion of a workers' paradise. Two decades of capitalist reforms have outstripped those ideas for most Chinese, who are scrambling for a purchase--both literal and figurative--in the new society.

"Deng [Xiaoping] was the one who said, 'To get rich is glorious,' " Xu said. "We're just following his direction."

The definition of the "middle class" in China remains somewhat nebulous--there is no official description or recognition of its status.

The term is usually applied to urban Chinese who have successfully climbed the social ladder; most are clustered along the country's prosperous east coast.

They buy cell phones and gym memberships, microwaves and mortgages, computers and DVD players. Some vacation abroad. Others scout for good schools for their kids. Many have an increasing sense of privacy and personal liberty, partly because they are no longer attached to the old government "work units" that used to control their lives.

A large proportion belong to the nation's burgeoning white-collar sector, a once-pejorative label that has lately been revived as something of a status symbol.

Out is the old exaltation of manual labor and the proletariat. In are "mental labor" and the skills needed for the 21st century.

Signs of this ideological shift abound, especially in the publishing industry, which is busy cranking out book after book aimed at "the white-collar class," with such titles as "The White-Collar Bible" and "White-Collar Success."

The books are sold in shops, sidewalk kiosks and subway stations. At one of Beijing's most famous state-run bookstores recently, more readers stopped to thumb through a panoply of "white-collar" books than bothered even to glance at the collected works of Mao, Marx and Lenin, which sat in lonely leftist solidarity on a neighboring shelf.

Most of the books offer advice for the up-and-coming professional: how to shine in a job interview, how to write a resume, how to interact with co-workers of the opposite sex.

The Proper Way to Eat Caviar

One guide gives tips on etiquette, including the correct way to eat caviar, sip soup, remove a piece of spinach stuck between your teeth and tell a colleague tactfully about his or her body odor. Another manual promotes "white-collar health," with suggestions on how to avoid fatigue and keep fit after sitting behind a desk all day.

"The white-collar class existed before and during the Cultural Revolution . . . but it had a derogatory sense at the time," said an official with the government-run Henan People's Publishing House, which has put out its own "White Collar Series" of books.

The official said "white collar" is now a neutral term--but he was still too uncomfortable with the topic to be identified by name.

Sometimes, the term is regarded as outright positive. In an independent poll taken 2 1/2 years ago, respondents in a dozen major cities admiringly described white-collar folks as educated, professional and affluent.

In Beijing, 14% of residents identified themselves as white-collar. In Shanghai, the proportion was 12%, while in the bustling southern port city of Xiamen, nearly 20% of people considered themselves white-collar.

"The equation of 'highly educated and cultivated' with 'high income' is a total negation" of past practice, when physical toil was glorified and mental labor denigrated, the authors of the survey said. "So to a certain extent, the emergence and popularity of white-collar people is a sort of progress."

The term has become so pervasive that Chinese social commentators have begun to adapt it. In addition to white-collar workers and blue-collar ones, there are now "pink-collar" workers (clerks and the like) and "golden-collar" workers (the get-rich-quick high-tech types).

Consumption, much of it the conspicuous kind, is key to China's emerging middle class.

Their buying habits take big cues from the West, especially the U.S. Witness the enduring popularity here of a book titled, aptly enough, "Class," by British author Paul Fussell.

In English, Fussell's work is a witty and somewhat ironic look at the American bourgeoisie, examining its affectations and tastes. In the Chinese version--a bestseller when it was released 2 1/2 years ago--some of the irony was lost in translation, leading many readers to take the book seriously as a guide to emulating the American middle class.

The mood lighting in Cao Fang's living room is due to Fussell's book (whose title was translated into Chinese as "Gediao," or "Style"). After reading about the American penchant for candle-lit interiors, Cao decided to follow suit.

"Reading that book definitely influenced my husband and me," said Cao, 29, who lives in Guangzhou, one of China's most freewheeling, market-oriented cities, where a sizable middle class has sprung up. "In the past, we never thought candles could be used as decoration. Now we sometimes buy them for our house, and they add a very special touch when they're lit."

Guangzhou boasts three stores bearing the same name as Fussell's book, although their proprietor, Lan Heping, insists it's just coincidence.

Most of Population Subsists on Farming

His shops are like Pottery Barn outlets with Chinese characteristics. There are silk flowers and wax fruit, glass vases and matching tablecloths, picture frames and bookends. Many of the products are made of natural or recycled material, which "is also fashionable among the American and European middle class now," said Lan, 29, who has visited both places.

Yet for all its growing clout, China's bourgeoisie is still not your average Zhou. More than two-thirds of China's 1.3 billion people subsist by farming and are of poor or modest means. Millions of workers in the cities have been laid off from money-losing state enterprises in recent years, adding to a sense of disenfranchisement.

Experts warn that the gap between the well-heeled and the down-at-the-heels is widening at an alarming rate. More and more of the country's wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

After China's expected entry into the World Trade Organization later this year, the situation may worsen. Protests around the country are already commonplace, if scattered.

This is why, says scholar Cheng Li, the Chinese government is more worried about the potential for resentment and unrest at the bottom of the social scale than it is about rising demands and expectations from the tiny, albeit important, middle class.

"The political role of the middle class in China at this point is still marginal," said Li, who teaches at Hamilton College in New York. "This may soon change as its number and influence increase."

For now, he said, "the middle class is interested in social and political stability. So is the Chinese government."

To Xu Lei, the consultant, the whole point of the last 20 years of reform has been to create a class of people like him.

Xu's monthly earnings are more than $1,200, a sum that tens of millions of Chinese are lucky to make in a year. He likes his bone-white Volkswagen Jetta and his Hong Kong-tailored suits. And he wants to be able to continue enjoying them, without the stigma that dogged the bourgeoisie in the past.

"This is simply the trend," he said. "You can't use right or wrong, good or bad, to judge it."

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