Tai-lok Lui and Shuo Liu
Economic reform in contemporary China in the past few decades has brought about a transformation of its social structure. Among the important changes, the emergence of a middle class (or for others, the middle classes) is no doubt a social phenomenon that carries significant social and political implications. The emergence of this newly constituted social class is the sign of the impacts of marketization – the non-state sector has become a new driving force of economic growth and it offers opportunities for social advancement – as well as a major restructuring of state enterprises and centrally controlled businesses. It is also a reflection of the formation of a new system of social stratification that marketable assets and skills will determine individuals’ life chances in the changing Chinese economy. This chapter is a survey of current research and discussion on the urban middle class in contemporary China. Drawing upon their field experience of doing research on the middle class in contemporary China, the authors try to articulate the major research findings in the literature and to reflect upon the changing research agenda of this topic. Discussion will start from the background of the changing class structure and the early reactions to the rise of new social classes in the socio-economic and political context of marketization. This will be followed by a look at different conceptions of the newly constituted middle class and different depictions of this emerging social class. The authors will also look at the political orientation and role of this newly constituted social class. Lastly, in their observations of the key features of the middle class, it is suggested that the situation of the middle class is characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty. Anxiety is always a prominent feature of the cultural and political outlook of China’s middle class, despite the fact that most of these middle class managers and professionals have been experiencing growing affluence.