China's Middle Class

24 Aug 2006|Cynthia Chan

The economic and developmental changes transforming China on a daily basis have created a new demographic familiar to most Western countries but new to China. This new segment of society is the middle class. The notion of middle class in China did not really emerge until the mid-to-late 1990’s, and it’s still a relatively amorphous concept. In fact, although “middle class” is loosely translated zhong chan in Mandarin, the expression is not widely familiar. If a Chinese citizen has a stable income sufficient to afford an apartment, a car, a child’s education, and assorted more discretionary purchases like vacations, entertainment, and fashion, he or she is likely to be regarded as a member of the middle class. For our purposes, a family with an annual income ranging between 30,000 to 75,000 yuan ($3,750 to $9,375 U.S.) or assets of 300,000 yuan could qualify.

Even with this criterion, it’s difficult to pinpoint how many Chinese are middle class. Some analysts size the middle-class population as low as 35 million people (2.7 percent of the total population). Others, like the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, claim it includes over 200 million people (19 percent) and is on track to reach 500 million in 2020. While the size of the country’s middle class may be contested, what is not disputed is its existence, its rapid growth and its impact on China and the rest of the world.

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