Middle Class China
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Middle Class China

Identity and Behaviour

Edited by Minglu Chen and David S.G. Goodman

A general expectation has developed that China’s middle class will generate not only social but also political change. This expectation often overlooks the reality that there is no single Chinese middle class with a common identity or will to action. This timely volume examines the behaviour and identity of the different elements of China’s middle class – entrepreneurs, managers, and professionals – in order to understand their centrality to the wider processes of social and political change in China.
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Chapter 2: Class, consumption and the economic restructuring of consumer space

Identity and Behaviour

Carolyn Cartier


From the national economy to the local level of the household, consumption has become a major subject for defining the new Chinese middle class. The Central Government is relying on household consumption to transform the country from a production-led to a consumption-led domestic economy, in which private household consumption – rather than continued state investment – drives annual GDP growth. In the process of this planned transition, consumption is proving to be a key context for debate over diverse issues of social and economic change. This chapter examines several conjunctures between consumption and class formation in urban China, where the rapidity of urban development and economic restructuring has compressed the trajectory of the production – consumption transition and limited middle class hopes and possibilities. The rapidity of urban growth and transformation in contemporary China complicates understandings of production–consumption and class relations because values and priorities in urban society have been subject to multiple extraordinary upheavals. Indeed, across the twentieth century Chinese cities have been the geographical focus of political-ideological debates over production and consumption. In the Republican period, cities were sites of state-promoted consumer campaigns in favour of China-made goods (Gerth, 2003). After the Chinese Communist Party established leadership in 1949, the Party-state sought to transform ‘consumer cities’ into ‘producer cities’ (Murphey, 1980), which halted commercial development. When Shanghai and the other 13 coastal port cities opened under reform in 1984, pre-war facades characterized their urban-built environments. Under reform, wholesale reconstruction of new urban commercial districts has created vast new landscapes for citizen-consumer experience.

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