National Geographic – China’s middle class is now estimated to number between 100 million and 150 million people. Though definitions vary—household income of at least $10,000 a year is one standard—middle-class families tend to own an apartment and a car, to eat out and take vacations, and to be familiar with foreign brands and ideas.
In 1998, when the government launched reforms to commercialize the housing market, it was the rare person who owned an apartment. Today home ownership is common, and prices have risen beyond what many young couples can afford—as if everything that happened in America over 50 years were collapsed into a single decade.
The average disposable income of urban Chinese households rose to around $3,000 per capita in 2010, according to an analysis of official government statistics by China Market Research Group. That means a typical family of three earns around $9,000 a year.
The average city resident can afford to rent a 700-square-foot apartment, spend 35% of their income on food, and still put 20% aside in savings, as is customary in China, estimates James Roy, senior analyst at China Market Research.
Meanwhile, few use credit cards, and most are unlikely to own a car, opting for public transportation instead. The typical cell phone bill is around only $10 a month (or about $20 for an iPhone).
Eating out once or twice a week is not uncommon, sometimes including American fast food chains like KFC or Pizza Hut which have expanded aggressively in China. The average consumer can also afford to be brand-conscious on occasion.
The traditional examination system that selects a favored few for higher education remains intact: The number of students entering college in a given year is equal to 11 percent of the college-freshman-age population, compared with 64 percent in the United States. Yet the desire to foster well-rounded students has fed an explosion of activities—music lessons, English, drawing, and martial arts classes—and turned each into an arena of competition.
Such pursuits bring little pleasure. English ability is graded on five levels stretching through college, and parents push children to pass tests years ahead of schedule. Cities assess children’s piano playing on a ten-level scale. More than half of preteens take outside classes, a survey found, with the top reason being “to raise the child’s future competitiveness.”
In the five years since I met Bella and her family, their lives have transformed. They moved into a new three-bedroom apartment—it is almost twice the size of their old one, which they now rent out—and furnished it with foreign brand-name appliances. They bought their first car, a Volkswagen Bora, and from taking the bus they went straight to driving everywhere. They eat out a couple of times a week now, and the air-conditioner stays on all summer. At age 12, Bella got her first mobile phone—a $250 Panasonic clamshell in Barbie pink. Her parents’ annual income reached $18,000, up 40 percent from when we first met.
As the material circumstances of Bella’s family improved, the world became to them a more perilous place. Their cleaning lady stole from them and disappeared. Several friends were in near-fatal car accidents. One day Bella’s father saw her holding a letter from a man she’d met online. Bella’s parents changed the locks and the phone number of the apartment. Her father drove her to and from school now because he thought the neighborhood around it was unsafe.