The middle class exerts a stablizing influence on society. But in China, people in the middle-income category are far from playing the role that the middle class does in developed countries. Why? Because economic status alone does not make the middle class, says Yu Jianrong, a sociologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).
The middle class is considered an important part of society because its ratio to a country's population decides the economy's vitality and the availability of good jobs. It acts as a buffer between the rich and the poor, too, without which social conflicts would intensify.
Three decades of China's reform and opening up have resulted in a booming economy and brought about great changes in society. Though indices such as the average annual income suggest medium-income people's earnings have not risen sharply, Yu says there's no denying that the number of such people has been growing year after year.
Yet, he says, it's hard and even controversial to cite a concrete number for medium-income earners in China. No wonder, the CASS report in February that said 23 percent of the country's population could be classified as middle class sparked a heated debate.
Normally, people in company management, financial consultancy or government service are considered medium-income earners. Judging by this, Yu says, China's medium-income group hasn't established itself as the middle class. Many of the medium-income earners think they belong to the middle class just because of the money they earn. But they are found wanting when it comes to social responsibility, upholding social equity and promoting democratic development. Some of them even lack professionalism and morality.
That's why the country's medium-income earners have failed to serve as a strong buffer between the rich and the poor. That the privileged people use the majority of the resources and enjoy exclusive say in policymaking is one reason for that failure. But again, that can be blamed on the relatively slow pace of political reform compared to the fast economic development, Yu says. It's time to expedite the pace of political reform so that the middle class can be organized to play its expected role, resources can be distributed more equally among all social strata and society can become more stable and sustainable.
Since the middle class, he says, is economically and mentally more stable than the poor and the rich it plays a significant role in maintaining social order. But that's not the case in China because of the relatively small number of medium-income and their limited influence. And Yu doubts that they would become more socially responsible even if their number increases.
Moreover, the narrow social buffer that China's middle class provides tends to favor the rich, rather than being a balancing factor between the haves and have-nots. If the middle class continues to shirk its responsibility of playing a balancing role in society, it would intensify the rich-poor contradictions instead of alleviating them. And since it can never be part of the upper class in terms of wealth or mentality, the middle class would face the threat of being marginalized.