The workers' long march to a middle class

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 December, 2008, 12:00am

What Xue Deyu remembers most clearly about the time before economic reforms was falling ill every Lunar New Year from waiting outside in the cold to buy a coveted fish for the holiday table.

The neighbourhood committee, which then controlled many facets of daily life in their Shanghai alley, would distribute special food coupons for the holiday but people still had to queue and pay for the purchases. Hopeful customers would place objects like a brick, a basket or a cup on the ground to hold their places in the queue the night before the local food market even opened.

'When the selling started, suddenly everyone appeared. It was a sea of people. You had to argue or fight with everyone,' she recalled.

Ms Xue, 64, still occasionally pulls a small cart to a vegetable market, but she often takes a free shuttle bus to a nearby hypermarket in which a foreign company has invested.

'Even if you had money then, you couldn't buy things. [Now] economic life is much better. It's only recently that there have been some good years,' she said.

In 1978, she earned 40 yuan a month and her husband 43 yuan as employees of state-owned pharmaceutical companies.

'Generally, salaries were all the same for younger people,' she said.

Last year, Shanghai's per capita annual income was 26,102 yuan - even higher than the national level of 14,909 yuan - official figures showed.

After reforms started in 1978, she and her husband were both elevated to management positions, reflecting their education. The Communist Party helped make that possible in late 1978 by beginning to rehabilitate people considered wrongly condemned in political campaigns.

'During the Cultural Revolution, everyone was a worker,' her husband said, referring to the chaotic 1966-1976 period. 'In 1978, the policy for intellectuals was implemented. Intellectuals didn't have to do labour.'

The evolution of her family's buying power mirrors the creation of the mainland's middle class. The household bought a table fan for 100 yuan shortly after the birth of their daughter in 1977. Their first television and refrigerator came in 1984.

Neighbours used to cluster around the television, a black and white model imported from Japan. Before owning the refrigerator, she would place leftover food in water to keep it cool. The household upgraded to a colour television in 1988, followed by a home phone in 1992 and a motorcycle for her husband to get to work in 1992.

The path to a vast improvement in living standards came in the mid-1980s, when her state pharmaceutical factory entered into a venture with a rural company to make cosmetic products, then much in demand since few choices were available on the market. Profits from its face creams, anti-ageing and acne lotions filtered down to employees.

Now the family has moved out of their 14-square-metre room in a decrepit, pre-1949 house into one of the city's many residential complexes. Their daughter, who works for a foreign company, owns a Japanese car.

Definitions of the middle class vary. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which defines the group according to profession, says the middle class accounts for 20 per cent of the nation's population.

In another survey, Outlook Weekly magazine said the middle class accounted for 11.5 per cent of the population but paid almost one-third of all taxes, according to state media.

Despite the improvement in living standards, Ms Xue laments recent inflation and a perceived increase in corruption, which she sees as a result of economic reform.

'There used to be fewer opportunities for corruption,' she said. 'Everyone was poor.'

With growing incomes, there are signs that China's middle class is becoming more aware of political rights, especially regarding quality-of-life issues. Recent examples are protests - or 'walks', as participants call them to avoid angering the government - against an extension of the maglev train in Shanghai and a chemical plant in Xiamen .

The issues tend to be local, and protest groups in one city or province are not linking up with others to create a national movement. Most members of the middle class seem content to enjoy the benefits brought to them by a government that has made them richer.