Business, Economics and Jobs

Chinese magazine asks: ‘What does middle class mean’?


Rush hour in Beijing.


Frederic J. Brown

HONG KONG — Caixin, a well-regarded magazine that could be thought of as a sort of Chinese Bloomberg BusinessWeek, just published a commentary that goes to the heart of a question at the center of our upcoming series.

When you’re talking about Asia — places like China, India, and the Philippines, where American middle-class jobs have been moving — what does “middle class” really mean? Obviously, the local understanding of what's middle class in Manila is different from what it is in Shanghai, or Bangalore — let alone New York.

As Betty Ng, the author of the commentary, writes, “In some countries, being middle class might mean owning a house and a car. In others, it may just represent having a roof over your head and a toilet.”

To find out what different places believe to be the middle, Ng reports that Fidelity Asia-Pacific asked hundreds of people in 10 Asian cities what the boundaries were for being high or low income.

The answer? Confusion.

The results of the survey were a surprise. None of the cities can define clearly what low, middle or high income is. All the investigated cities lack a definition that a majority of people would agree with.

For instance, in Beijing and Shanghai, the most common definition for a "low-income household" is to have a monthly income of 5,000 to 7,499 yuan, however, this represents opinions of 33 percent of all respondents. The answer that comes second, with 25 percent, is 2,500 to 4,999 yuan for a monthly household income. ...

If there is a lack of a consensus about what rich and poor are, then can a "middle class" or "middle income" really exist? Or do Asians somehow live in a classless society? These questions are worth thinking about.

According to our survey, people usually define levels of income in relation to their own household income. The more one household earns, the higher their definition of what a high income is.

Even in the US, it’s hard to get people to agree on exactly what “middle class” means, and where it begins or ends. The canonical example is $250,000 households in ultra-expensive New York City that feel firmly middle-class, while ranking in the top tier of income.

However you define the middle class, one thing everyone in America can agree on is it’s shrinking.