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The Political Tendencies of the Chinese Middle Class and Its Influence on Public Opinion


This article from the Vice President of the School of International Relations and Public Policy at Fudan University explores the shifting politics and values of China’s middle class, as well as its impact on overall society.

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In contemporary China, the middle class has become an increasingly attractive subject of action. The growing middle class, on the one hand, reflects the great achievements of China’s reform and opening up and socialist construction; on the other hand, it also puts forward higher requirements for public management and social governance. The social influence of the middle class exceeds that of general social groups, and their political attitudes and value judgments have a huge impact on public opinion. In public opinion events, the voice of the middle class often represents the mainstream public opinion.


1. Current definition, size, and distribution of the Chinese middle class


The main indicators for defining the middle class are income, wealth, education level, occupation, lifestyle, social prestige, and control over subordinates, of which income is the core dimension. 1 Li Peilin and Zhu Di defined the middle class as the group whose income is between the 25th and 95th percentile of urban residents and calculated that the proportion of the middle class in China’s urban population in 2013 was 25%.2  Li Qiang and Wang Hao defined China’s middle class from the three dimensions of income, occupation, and education, and took the average annual income of the urban household registration population as a reference baseline: The group below 50% of the baseline is defined as the “lower class,” and the group from more than 50% of the baseline to less than 3 times the baseline is defined as the “middle class.” In 2012, this group accounted for 46.2%, but the real income middle class accounted for only 18.89%. 3


In the 2014 national economic census, the annual income of 60,000 to 120,000 yuan was used as the standard for the middle class. The urban and rural middle class account for about 25% of the country’s 760 million laborers, or about 190 million people. In 2015, the 2015 Global Wealth Report released by Credit Suisse pointed out that the total wealth of Chinese households reached 22.8 trillion U.S. dollars, surpassing Japan to become the second richest country in the world, second only to the United States. At the same time, China has the largest middle-class population in the world, reaching 109 million, surpassing the 92 million middle-class population in the United States. The Chinese middle class accounts for 11% of the national adult population and 16% of the global middle class. The report defines the “middle class” with assets ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 U.S. dollars (about 317,000 to 3.17 million yuan). China’s middle-class population is far larger than that of other countries. The middle-class population has increased by 38 million between 2000 and 2015, and its wealth has increased by 5.6 trillion U.S. dollars. 4


According to the 2015 China Household Finance Survey, the actual population of the Chinese middle class is 204 million, far exceeding the 109 million reported by Credit Suisse Wealth. The total wealth of China’s middle class is 28.3 trillion U.S. dollars, surpassing the United States and Japan, and ranking first in the world.5


Based on the above studies, the number of middle-class people in China according to the academic statistics is between 100 million and 200 million. Although the proportion of China’s middle class as a proportion of the country’s total population is not high and there is a large gap compared with the olive-shaped social structure in Western countries, the absolute number is huge, and its economic, political, and cultural influence cannot be ignored.


Most of these survey data come from questionnaires, that is, respondents’ self-reports, and the information about property and income usually tends to be under-reported, especially in terms of property. Personal wealth is more opaque than income. A major change in today’s society is that the importance of property, especially real estate, to social stratification is increasing, while the role of wage income is declining. Wan Haiyuan and Li Shi’s research found that housing prices are the main reason for property growth. After deducting the housing price factor, the total property value of residents drops by 40%. In first- and second-tier cities, rising housing prices accounted for 38% of the property Gini coefficient. The research by Li Qiang, et al found that China’s middle class is mainly concentrated in cities, especially the cities in the eastern region, and the tertiary industry is the main employment field for the middle class.6 7


The Chinese society from 1949 to 1994 was a flat society, with relatively sparse social stratification and insignificant class differences. The main features were as follows: (1) The income gap was small, and the amount of family property was small (the income Gini coefficients were 0.288 and 0.359 in 1981 and 1993, respectively). (2) Mixed classes, mainly unit-based communities where different classes mixed within a given space; the flow between classes was relatively easy and frequent. (3) Society tended towards low and medium levels of consumption, and the Engel coefficient was high.

1949年至1994年的中国社会是一个扁平社会,社会分层比较粗疏,阶层差别不明显,主要特征是:(1) 收入差距小,家庭财产少(1981年和1993年收入基尼系数分别为0.288和0.359)。(2) 阶层混居,以单位社区为主,不同阶层在空间上是混合居住的;阶层之间的流动相对容易和频繁。(3) 中低消费为主,恩格尔系数高。

After 1994, especially after 1998, China entered a finely stratified society, which was marked by: (1) A widened income and property gap. In 2009, the income Gini coefficient was 0.49, and in 2010, the property Gini coefficient was 0.739. The importance of property income gradually surpassed wage income. (2) Residential segregation and consumption divisions across classes formed. After the reform of the housing system, housing classes were formed, and different classes had different living spaces. Consumption also became an important boundary for people to be divided into groups. (3) Class differentiation became more refined, and cross-class mobility became more difficult.

1994年以后,特别是1998年以后,中国进入了一个精细分层的社会,其标志是:(1)收入和财产差距扩大。2009年收入基尼系数为0.49,2010年财产基尼系数为0.739,财产性收入的重要性逐步超越工资性收入。(2) 阶层的居住隔离和消费区隔形成。住房制度改革之后住房阶级形成,不同的阶层有不同的居住空间,消费成为人以群分的重要界线。(3)阶层的分化变得更加精致,跨阶层的流动变得更为困难。

The formation and expansion of the middle class has been an important achievement of China’s economic development, and it has also become a driving force for China’s sustained economic growth and expansion of domestic demand. However, the growth of the middle class has also brought new challenges to our public management. The biggest challenges are: First, the quality of officials in Chinese history had an obvious advantage over the subjects of governance. However, with the expansion of the middle class, this advantage has been weakened or even partially reversed: A considerable number of the subjects under management have economic income, education, and even international standards, such that their goals go beyond ordinary civil servants. Second, the middle class has higher requirements for the level of public services and the institutionalization of government behavior, and the traditional extensive public management model has become out of date. Third, the interests and values of the middle class are highly differentiated, and they have both interest and value demands.


2. Political orientation and social demands of the middle class in the new media era


Whether the middle class is politically conservative or radical has always been debated in academic circles. Zhou Xiaohong believes that China’s emerging middle class is mainly interested in economic wealth. Rather than political rights, he characterized the Chinese middle class as “consumption avant-garde, political rearguard.”8 Li Peilin and Zhang Yi found that, compared with other classes, the middle class criticized the current social and political situation more, and lacked trust in government behavior. 9 In the author’s opinion, the conservative and radical aspects of the middle class are “contextualized.” At the day to day, the middle class shows more conservative aspects, which is due to their interests and the system. Once their interests are substantially damaged, the middle class will also take to the streets. Citizens in Xiamen, Dalian, Ningbo, and other places opposed the construction of the PX project by means of group walks, and parents in Nanjing and Wuhan collectively protested the reduction of the college entrance examination indicators. 10


In daily life, the middle class often shows a conservative side. As the backbone members of a unit, they face enormous work pressure and have no time to participate in public life; as fans of consumer culture, they are rational economic animals; as beneficiaries of the current system, they yearn for stability and fear that reforms will affect their vested interests.


On the one hand, the middle class often exhibits a certain degree of political apathy. In the election of deputies to grassroots people’s congresses and community elections, it is often difficult to see the figure of the middle class; the self-governance of residents and the self-government of owners are also ineffective because of the “silent majority” and are criticized by others. On the other hand, the middle class is keen to discuss politics, paying attention to major personnel changes and political events, and various political gossip is widely circulated in circles of friends. Rather than saying that the middle class does not care about politics, it is better to say that the middle class lacks low-cost but effective channels for political participation.


Home and children are the top concerns of the middle class. The middle class cares about their homes: It is their shelter, and it is also the main way for them to maintain and increase the value of their assets. The home is a symbol of a sense of security and achievement. The middle class cares about the education of their children, and attaching importance to education is a common feature of East Asian society, though China’s middle class pays particular attention to investment in education due to status anxiety. Housing policies, educational equity, and social mobility are issues of particular concern to the middle class. On these three issues, the middle class has a very contradictory psychology and lacks clear policy appeals. On the one hand, they think that housing prices are too high and call themselves “housing slaves.” On the other hand, they are very worried that the housing price will fall and their interests will be damaged. They advocate fairness in education in concept but are often wary of education reform, disapprove of college entrance examinations in different places, and do not want their children to become classmates with migrant children. They criticize class rigidity, but they fear that their children are at risk of downward mobility.


At the same time, we also found that the middle class is closely related to social movements. The driving force of social movements, such as the homeowners’ rights movements, environmental movement, Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) movement, feminist movement, gay rights movement, and animal rights movement, is the middle class. The participation of the middle class in social movements or group events may be due to substantial damage to their interests, such as protesting against the construction of substations, waste incineration plants, and PX projects near their own communities or because of specific values, such as opposing the Nujiang Hydropower Project. Compared with the lower class, the middle class has higher requirements for the environment. The western world usually thinks that the middle class is closely related to the democratization movement but from the current point of view, the middle class in China does not show a strong appeal for Western-style democracy. Rather, they have a higher demand for procedural justice such as the rule of law, openness, and transparency. The middle class has a relatively developed social network, including informal groups formed based on occupation, academic relationships, consumption, and residence, but the overall degree of organization is low and its influence on public policy is mainly formed through public opinion rather than social media. At present, the social movements of the middle class are mainly local and small-scale.


3. Agenda-setting role of the middle class in public opinion events: Taking vaccine events as an example


In the Changchun Bio-Technology vaccine incident of July 2018, the main public opinion promoters behind it were also the middle class. The Chinese are extremely sensitive to the interests of their children. The melamine incident and the ineffective vaccine incident violated the common interests of most people in China. Unlike the anger at the bottom, the middle class is good at digging into these issues, such as the regulatory issues behind the vaccine incident, corruption issues, monopoly issues, privatization “original sin” issues, and so on.


From the initial exposure of the vaccine incident to the follow-up in the media and public opinion, during this process, there were many topic changes, and the focus of people’s attention constantly drifted, resulting in seven boiling points of public opinion. The so-called boiling points of public opinion are the key pieces of information and the framework by which they were interpreted that aroused the high attention of public opinion. Among the seven boiling points of public opinion, two were primary issues, that is, issues that could be discovered without excessive association, and five were secondary issues, that is, they were not directly related to the vaccine incident and required in-depth exploration or were even issues that could only be formed by taking advantage of the incident.


Primary issue 1: Toxic vaccine vs ineffective vaccine


News of the vaccine incident initially broke, and the media reported on the topic of “toxic vaccines,” with some public accounts republishing Wang Keqin’s Shanxi Vaccine Chaos Investigation and the documentary Vaccine Disaster. Fang Zhouzi held a critical opinion on this, pointing out that journalists represented by Wang Keqin demonized vaccine injections, described ineffective vaccines as toxic vaccines, and described coincidences as adverse vaccine reactions, which was detrimental to China’s public health system. Dr. Dingxiang’s 7 Answers Everyone Should Know After the Changchun Changsheng Vaccine Incident has been widely disseminated, educating the public to distinguish between vaccine efficacy and safety; if efficacy is noncompliant, it does not mean that it will be harmful to the human body after vaccination, using the appeal for people not to give up food because of the fear of choking and to not give up vaccinating their children. It is worth noting that in relatively “popular” online forums such as Tianya and Maopu, people used the term “toxic vaccine” more often; while in Zhihu, a typical “middle-class” online platform, people tended to refer to “ineffective” vaccines.


Primary issue 2: Regulatory issues


Public opinion has expressed that the punishment of 3,442,900 yuan for Changsheng Bio-Technology was too light. Regarding the 186 “adsorbed acellular DTP combined vaccines” that were confiscated, the public also questioned why was inventory so low. Due to the low cost of illegality and the temptation for huge profits, vaccine manufacturers have strong motives and room for violations.


The Tencent News Prism report “Money, Time, Approval, Motivation for Fake Vaccine Processes” pointed out that there was a relationship between the process fraud of pharmaceutical companies and that supervision system was too microscopic. The “Vaccine Supervision System and Punishment” of the Economic Observer believed that China’s vaccine supervision system was actually relatively strict, but it was not refined or scientific enough.


Secondary issue 1: Corruption


The media noted that vaccine marketing costs were disproportionately high. In 2017, the operating income of Changsheng Bio-Technology was 1.553 billion yuan. In turn, R&D investment was only 122 million yuan while sales expenses were as high as 582 million yuan, accounting for 37.5% of the operating income, nearly five times that of R&D investment and more than 16 million yuan over its profit of 566 million yuan. In 2017, the marketing service fees for Changsheng Bio-Technology was 442 million yuan. Most of these marketing service fees were returned to customers such as doctors, hospitals, dealers, and other customers in the form of gifts, travel services, gold cards, and even cash under various expense items, essentially bribery in disguise.


Secondary issue 2: The “Original Sin” of privatization


Shou Ye’s “The King of Vaccines” questioned the improper means that Han Gangjun, Du Weimin, Gao Junfang, and others used to control half of China’s vaccines — the largest hepatitis B vaccine company, the largest influenza vaccine company, the second largest chickenpox vaccine company, and the second and fourth largest rabies vaccine companies. This article drew public attention to the problem of the loss of state-owned assets in the process of restructuring state-owned enterprises in the vaccine industry.


Secondary issue 3: Market access issues


The article “Why We Can’t Get Imported Vaccines” pointed out that China has what is said to be the “world’s most stringent” vaccine supervision system, and the approval of imported vaccines is even more stringent. According to China’s current Administrative Measures for Drug Registration, clinical trials must be carried out before imported vaccines are approved for domestic marketing. In addition to clinical trials, an imported drug registration certificate can only be issued after a review period ranging from one to five years. The time and cost of these approval processes are enormous, and China’s standards for reviewing imported vaccines are sometimes beyond comprehension.


Secondary issue 4: Promotion of accountable officials


The online article “Why Let A Man Who Can’t Manage Infant Formula Powder Manage Medicine?” questioned the promotion of Sun Xianze. In March 2009, Sun Xianze, then director of the Food Safety Coordination Department of the State Food and Drug Administration, was given administrative demerits for the Sanlu infant formula powder incident. In September 2012, he was promoted to Deputy Director of the State Food and Drug Administration and Director of Drug Safety.


Secondary issue 5: Press freedom issues


An article by Wang Keqin was widely circulated on the internet claiming that his article about the vaccine chaos in Shanxi led to his resignation, and Bao Yueyang, the editor-in-chief of China Economic Times who approved the article was transferred from his post. This drew the ire of public opinion: If the problem cannot be solved, the person who raised the problem will be solved! The online posts and official account articles about vaccines were deleted, and many netizens turned their anger from pharmaceutical companies to relevant government authorities.


The general public only paid attention to the primary issues, and most concerns about secondary issues revolved corruption and privatization. The middle class had a more in-depth reflection on the vaccine incident and further discussed issues such as market access, official accountability, and press freedom so as to raise the analysis of this incident from a single incident to the institutional level.


4. Performance, laws, and characteristics of the middle class in public opinion


In today’s public opinion in China, there are two important forces: One is the “angry youth” who oppose matters  for the sake of opposition itself, and the other is the moderate and rational middle class. “Angry youth” are more active in cyberspace, especially in grassroots forums. The middle class is the main producer and audience of the mass mainstream media (whether it is market-oriented media or party media, their reporters belong to the middle class, and the middle class reports news for the middle class), and their values and social attitudes largely shape mainstream public opinion. The public discussions triggered by the stock market circuit breaker mechanism, the renewal of 70-year residential property rights, and the opening of roads in gated communities are all behind the anxiety of the middle class about property security.


The Lei Yang case is a case worth pondering. If you compare Lei Yang with Nie Shubin, there is no doubt that Nie Shubin had more grievances. The Nie Shubin case was an utterly unjust, false, and wrongful conviction. After all, Lei Yang had a physical conflict with the police. In a country ruled by law, this in itself is misconduct or illegal conduct. However, at the level of public opinion, the impact of the Lei Yang case was far greater than that of the Nie Shubin case. Why? No matter how wronged Nie Shubin was, people still tended to think that if they were a person with a bit of an identity,  they would not encounter such unfortunate things as Nie Shubin. Alternatively, Lei Yang is typical of the middle-class: He graduated from a prestigious school, held a decent job and a Beijing household registration. People tended to come to the conclusion that they too might become the next Lei Yang.


Chinese workers and peasants often have high trust in the central government and a lack of trust in grass-roots authorities, while the middle class’s trust in governments at all levels is at a low level. 11  The middle class believes that the ability to reflect on the system is what distinguishes them from the general public, so they have a greater interest in the negative news of the government or officials, prefer freedom of speech, and advocate reducing network censorship and network control. This, however, does not mean that the middle class tends to go against the system, after all, the vast majority of the middle class can benefit from the stability of the system.


If we pay attention to 100,000+ on WeChat, then we will find that: The middle class has a relatively strong ability to set the agenda of public opinion. It is difficult for speeches and opinions that do not conform to the values of the middle class to be disseminated on a large scale, even if there is a relatively large number of views. It is also difficult to carry out secondary dissemination through traditional mainstream media. In the future, the core force of online public opinion will still be the middle class. Some online communities such as Weibo, WeChat, and Zhihu may rise and fall, but the middle class has always maintained its influence on public opinion.


5. Influence of the middle class on the current social mentality, public opinion, and political stability


China’s middle class can be divided into two parts: One is the middle class within the system, mainly including civil servants, cadres and workers of state-owned enterprises and institutions, and intellectuals; the other is the middle class outside the system, which mainly includes white-collar workers of private enterprises and foreign-funded enterprises, small and medium-sized private business owners, and freelancers.


Although the relationship between the middle class outside the system and the government is not necessarily more alienated, compared with the middle class inside the system, they do have certain differences: First, they are less dependent on government resources and are more likely to participate in social movements and collective actions; second, based on the need for property rights protection, they have a strong identification with liberal values.


In general, among the middle class, liberalism has a slightly larger market share, and ideas such as democracy, freedom, equality, and the rule of law have a relatively large influence among the middle class. Using 171,830 survey samples provided by the China Political Coordinate System Test database, Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing found that liberals in China are concentrated in the developed eastern coastal areas, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hainan, and Liaoning; conservatives are concentrated in the less developed inland frontier areas. In addition, the higher the education level, the greater the probability of preference for liberalism. 12 The middle class in China is also mainly distributed in the developed coastal areas and has received relatively good levels of education. This survey result supports the judgment that the middle class as a whole leans to the right to a certain extent. The main reason for this is the marketization and globalization brought about by the reform and opening up in 1978, and the idea of liberalism is highly compatible with marketization and globalization. The secondary reason for this is that most of the middle class has received a higher education, and the content of our higher education in the past forty years has included Western scientific and cultural knowledge.

总体而言,在中产阶层群体中,自由主义的市场份额略大,民主、自由、平等、法治等理念在中产阶层当中有比较大的影响力。潘婕(Jennifer Pan)与徐轶青采用“中国政治坐标系测试”数据库所提供的171830个调查样本,发现中国的自由主义者集中于东部沿海发达地区,包括北京、上海、广东、江苏、浙江、福建、海南、辽宁;保守主义者则集中于欠发达的内陆边疆地区。此外,受教育程度越高,偏好自由主义的概率越大。而中国的中产阶层也主要分布于沿海发达地区,并且接受了相对好的教育,这一调查结果在一定程度上支持了中产阶层总体偏右的判断。之所以如此,最主要的原因在于1978年改革开放带来的市场化、全球化,而自由主义的理念与市场化、全球化是高度匹配的;其次是因为中产阶层大多数都接受过高等教育,而过去四十年我们的高等教育内容中就包含有西方的科学与文化知识。

Nationalism is a cross-class trend of thought. Judging from developments in recent years, the nationalism of the lower class is heating up. The main force of the anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2012 changed from students and white-collar workers to migrant workers, and while nationalism has had a greater impact on the middle class, their response has been relatively rational. On the one hand, this is because they have a higher level of education and had gone beyond the simplistic thinking of us versus them. On the other hand, people with higher incomes are more likely to go beyond the constraints of space and borders, and their vision is more international.


What needs to be emphasized is that in today’s China, the biggest ideology is neither liberalism, nor nationalism and much less left-wing ideology. In the author’s opinion, the most influential trend of thought is actually developmentalism, that is, the development concept with economic growth at its core, which is the most important social reality since the reform and opening up forty years ago. Because of its strong pragmatism, we have boldly adopted all systems and policies that are beneficial to economic development. Although China’s middle class has more distinct values than the general public, they still have strong materialistic tendencies, and their political attitudes largely depend on their economic status.


In addition, the middle class is a contradictory body with both a sense of privilege and equality. They are both the beneficiaries of the current system and have a certain reflection on the system, which determines their lack of clear and consistent positions and demands on many issues. Their ideology is strongly mixed, neither completely Western nor completely consistent with the mainstream ideology advocated by the government. They have received relatively good levels of education and demand more equal relations between officials and citizens, a more transparent policy process, and a more open social system. They also, however, have certain social resources and occasionally enjoy some “minor privileges” and hope that the government’s decision-making process can prioritize their interests. For example, the middle class generally agrees with the rigorous anti-corruption campaign. However, they also feel that anti-corruption has brought some inconvenience to their lives, limiting their opportunities for “minor corruption” and increasing the time cost of administrative approval.


At this stage, the middle class will not pose a systemic risk to the social stability of China. However, some local risks cannot be ruled out. The main risk points include shocks in the real estate market and securities market, rising unemployment caused by economic downturn, and illegal fund-raising. These risks are primarily economic rather than political.


6. Conclusion


The expansion of the middle class is an important achievement of China’s economic development and an important symbol of China’s rise. The political leanings of the middle class are “contextualized.” On the whole, the middle class is rational and moderate, relatively restrained on nationalist issues, and highly concerned with development, rights, the environment, health, and other issues. Should their major interests be infringed upon, the middle class not only has the potential for strong collective actions, they also have a significant influence on public opinion. The political orientation of the middle class dominates the direction of public opinion to a certain extent.


The middle class is a class that has a strong demand for information freedom and information disclosure. The middle class likes to make independent judgments on public affairs, rather than passively accepting “second-hand judgments.” To make independent judgments, they need a certain amount of information and relatively comprehensive sources of information. In the process of seeking justice, the lower class are more concerned with “discussing their opinions,” 13 that is, “qualifying” their own experiences and giving a “conclusion” (e.g., “I ask the government to decide whether I am a good person and whether I have been wronged”). In the arena of public opinion, the middle class needs factual information more urgently than such a conclusion (e.g., “You (the government and the mass media) tell me the facts first”).


At the level of legislation and law enforcement, both the ruling party and the government must stabilize the property expectations of the middle class and effectively protect property rights. Property security is their top concern. Special attention should be paid to the fact that part of the middle class has also joined the wave of overseas immigration that used to be dominated by the wealthy. Due to the unregulated market, the unsound rule of law and the rent-seeking behavior of power, a considerable part of the middle class lacks a sense of security in property and is in a state of mental anxiety.


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Cite This Page

熊易寒 (Xiong Yihan). "The Political Tendencies of the Chinese Middle Class and Its Influence on Public Opinion [中国中产阶层的政治倾向及其对舆情的影响]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Journal of Xiangtan University [湘潭大学学报], September 1, 2019

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