Friday, 19 November 2010

Rise of the middle class

Rise of the middle class
By Tang Jun (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-11-18 15:12

Society will be more stable when one third of the Chinese population has material means to become social backbone

Many scholars and individuals are showing concern about what kind of social structure will bring the best stability.

According to sociological theories, a modern society can be divided into four ranks: the wealthy, the middle class, labor and the disadvantaged. The middle class creates the ladder between the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken, thus easing the antagonism between them, by granting those at the bottom the hope of rising to a higher level.

Generally speaking, in a modern society, the middle class contains 60 to 70 percent of the population, leaving about 15 to 20 percent at either end of the ladder. Such a large middle class ensures stability for a society.

How do we define the middle class? There are three standards: material wealth, job status and self-identity.

Concerning material wealth, a middle income, sufficient to maintain a comfortable but not luxurious lifestyle, is the first pursuit of the middle class. In the present social situations, a typical middle-class family tends to own a car and a house, together with certain financial products.

The xiaokang (literally moderate prosperity) standard introduced by the government is essentially the Chinese version of the middle class. Sufficient wealth accumulation is the first prerequisite to be xiaokang.

Job status is another essential. In this society, a salary is still the most important income source for most individuals; therefore a stable job is the pursuit.

With the rise of knowledge capital, intellectuals and technicians are taking more pride in gaining a position through their knowledge or technical skills.

Self-identity is also indispensable. Being middle class means having access to a decent and relatively comfortable life and having the will to strive forward. This is beneficial to both the people and society.

During the past 30 years, a middle class has come into being in China. According to Professor Lu Xueyi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 23 percent of the population belong to the middle class; five years ago it was 18 percent. He estimates that the number will increase by 1 percent every year. If that growth rate can be maintained the middle class could reach 40 percent of the population by 2020.

However, that will not be achieved without problems. Ever since reform and opening-up in late 1970s, our changes in social structure have lagged 15 years behind economic development; that's the origin of many of our social problems.

The middle class, with a strong sense of social responsibility, should be the backbone of society. The awareness of being a responsible citizen offers strong support for society. However, the middle class in China is still immature in this respect and society needs them to meet their social obligations.

Of course, the rise of the middle class in any society is in dire need of rational support from the government. On their road to industrialization and modernization, many developed countries offered support or subsidy to blue-collar workers, helping them to own and accumulate capital. After World War II, many countries also used the policy "houses for residents", which proved very successful.

Owning a house has long been considered a prerequisite of entering the middle class, and when more and more people find it hard to reach this standard, it is impossible for them to remain silent.

The present tendency of economic growth is unfriendly to many people, especially to the supporting pillar of industry - migrant workers, whose number has reached 200 million. We hope the "inclusive growth" in the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) will solve these problems.

Three decades ago, Deng Xiaoping said: "Let one part of the people get rich first." Today might we make a similar statement for the 12th Five-Year Plan period - let one third of the Chinese people become middle class first.

The author is a researcher and secretary general of the Social Policy Research Center of the China Academy of Social Sciences.

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