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At the end of October 2016, China’s State Council promulgated documents to define nationwide regulatory actions on property and distribution of income and further alleviate the tax burden on those below middle class while properly accelerating taxation adjustment on the higher-earning classes. The document didn’t define the term of “high income,” but many Chinese media outlets assume that the government will increase taxes on those with annual incomes over 120,000 yuan (around US$18,000). This has triggered heated online discussion.
At the end of last century, “middle class,” a term coined in Western countries, became known in China thanks to advertising by real estate brokers and automobile salesmen. As defined by Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report in 2016, those who annually earn US$28,000 to 280,000 in China are considered “middle class,” of which China tallies 109 million.
However, most members of the demographic feel like they’re barely surviving in China’s metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Their classification as middle class seems laughable if it’s defined by what they have seen in American and British TV dramas: spacious living quarters, private cars, pets, sports and social activities. The cost of living in different cities in China can vary drastically: The country lacks a unified way to calculate living conditions in every locale. Li Chunling, a female researcher with the Institute of Sociology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has long been committed to the study of China’s middle class. She sees members of the group vague and complicated.
In hopes of depicting the group more clearly, China Pictorial interviewed Researcher Li Chunling.
China Pictorial (CP): What is the middle class?
Li Chunling (Li): There is no academic consensus. At present, economists in Europe and America place the group that ranks in the middle range in the social income distribution middle class. But globally, the term only refers to those whose incomes and consumption meet certain levels.
Experts have agreed on some of the features of this group in modern industrialized and post-industrialized countries: white collar, at least with some higher education and middle income that coincides with well-developed European and American countries. It would be improper to categorize the middle class by occupation or income alone.