When I asked Christine, a 40-something Shanghai native with a degree from a top university, a job in the tourism industry, and a home in the city, how the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted her place in China’s middle class, she quickly corrected me. “I have never perceived my family to be part of the middle class,” she said. “When I hear ‘middle class,’ I think of my clients. They have more money from their own companies or their jobs as skilled professionals or managers in large enterprises. My husband and I both work in the service industry; it’s very fragile.”
Christine’s response reflects public perceptions of the middle class in China, which are heavily influenced by TV dramas, novels, commercials, and other mass culture products that depict businesspeople, managers, and intellectual elites with very high incomes as “middle class.” These portrayals differ significantly from sociological definitions of the term, which measure objective indicators like education, income, occupation, and consumption. By these metrics, anywhere from 20%-50% of the country’s urban population would qualify as middle class.
That includes Christine and her husband — another local Shanghainese with an prestigious degree. The pair have worked in the travel and tourism industry for almost two decades and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle characterized by homeownership, car ownership, yearly trips overseas, and generous spending on their daughter’s education.
Like the rest of China’s middle class, the couple’s socioeconomic status is the product of the country’s explosive economic growth since the 1980s. To give just one example, China recorded 155 million outbound trips in 2019, up from less than 6 million in 2000. This boom in consumption has created opportunities for people like Christine, whose employer runs one of the more than 4,800 travel agencies in China licensed to book international trips.
However, Christine did have a point. The coronavirus outbreak has dealt a heavy blow to China’s economy — not least the tourism industry, which effectively ground to a halt this spring. Amid a wave of job losses and wage reductions across the service sector, China’s white-collar middle class has gotten a stark reminder of how fragile their newfound status can be. So, how are they coping? And more importantly, how might their experiences impact the future of the middle class as a whole?
In my discussions with white-collar middle-class Chinese who’d been hit hard by the pandemic, stories of individual resilience stood out. This is partly a matter of economic status: They benefitted from previously accumulated socioeconomic advantages, such as savings cushions or spouses still securely employed in the state sector. But they were also quick to adjust to the new normal.
Frank, a mid-level manager at a bus company, had his wages slashed by 60% when business cratered this year. Although he originally hoped to send his daughter to the United States for graduate school, he now seems content that she found a job in Shanghai.
Similarly, in the early stages of the outbreak, Christine worried that her lost income would impact her teenage daughter’s education prospects. But she gradually adjusted to her new reality by cutting back where she could. For instance, while her daughter used to be allowed to participate in any number of extracurricular programs or trips, the family has become more strategic since the pandemic began.
Reflecting on her privilege, Christine said, “Our family income is less than half of what it was before (the outbreak). But sometimes I think: This is actually the regular income of many couples. They also need to live and raise their child in Shanghai, and they manage to have a good life.”
Similar stories of resilience can also be found on the collective level. One thing that surprised Amanda, one of Christine’s co-workers, was how the pandemic had brought their team closer together. As their business collapsed, everyone pitched in to find whatever moneymaking opportunities they could, ranging from helping their previous clients sell goods on the side of the street to folding food delivery boxes in the office. And with more “free” time to talk to each other during these activities, Amanda and her co-workers found themselves connecting on a deeper level.
“It was nice sitting there working with our hands and chatting with each other,” Amanda told me. “I had never invited some of my co-workers over before, but now they have been my houseguests many times.”
Outside of the workplace, acquaintances, former classmates, clients, neighbors, and even small business owners all seem to be reaching out and talking to each other more. One motivation has been the need to find potential economic and employment opportunities. Christine and her co-workers got one of their temporary make-work jobs through the owner of the pastry shop next to their travel agency, for instance.
At the same time, there also seems to be an element of genuine mutual care and understanding as so many people face similar trials. For example, as more people turned to selling goods on social media platform WeChat as a way to make ends meet, they noticed their friends in less dire straits ordering from them, not out of necessity, but out of compassion. Among those I spoke to, these kind gestures and the sense of connectedness they brought proved as important and comforting, if not more so, than direct monetary assistance.
That’s not to say everything’s changing for the better. For many Chinese, the job and wage losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic only aggravated their existing problems. Christine has a former high-school classmate who can now barely afford his wife’s cancer treatment with his slashed wages. This has had a trickle-down effect on others in their social circle, as her classmate’s difficulties have forced Christine to reckon with her own uncertain future.
To cope with her anxiety, Christine and her husband have vowed to save more and spend less, even when the economy recovers. Her attempts to find a job in a less vulnerable industry have foundered, however, as rampant age discrimination has made it impossible for her to locate new work without personal connections.
Instead, predicting that international business travel might not recover, even after the pandemic, Christine chose to stay at her current job but shift her specialty from booking international plane tickets to domestic tourism.
Post-pandemic, China’s white-collar middle class will probably continue to demonstrate individual as well as collective resilience in the face of hardship. But this resilience could have a negative impact on China’s economic development as a whole, as even relatively privileged Chinese retrench and save rather than resume spending.
Given the circumstances, policies to mitigate against future uncertainty, or even just to make it easier for individuals to weather sudden economic changes, regardless of their social class, could go a long way toward restoring a much-needed sense of security and solidarity in the population.
Editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A woman walks across a street on a rainy day in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Aug. 18, 2020. Liu Youzhi/Southern Metropolis Daily/People Visual)