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Once dirty capitalist 'tails' become new Chinese middle class
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By Ren Ke

Eric Wang pops into a Starbucks near his office in Beijing's central business district. Wearing a neat dark blue suit with a gold-colored tie, he picks up a cup of cappuccino in his roughened hand, and sips.

"It's really a sharp contrast between my present life and that of my parents," says Wang. A certified public accountant, his life has been one of vicissitudes.

Born into a rural family in east China's Zhejiang Province, Wang says his parents are peasants who earn a living by planting rice and fishing in the Taihu Lake. Every summer holiday Wang helped his parents on the farm, which left him with a swarthy face and calloused hands.

Wang studied hard in school and was finally admitted to the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. Fascinated by the capital's skyscrapers, Wang knew he would not return to the two-storey wooden home where he was born.

Big-city men

Now 29, he earns more than 200,000 yuan (US$29,000) a year by working on initial public offerings for the companies that seek to list on the stock exchange. He asks not to use his Chinese name, as in China, it is unwise to advertise one's wealth.

Wang lives with his fiance in a two-bedroom apartment he bought two years ago in downtown Beijing. His mortgage will be paid off in three years. The next goal is a China-made Ford's Mondeo, worth 200,000 yuan.

In big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, Wang and others like him are part of a group that has only existed in China since the country's economic makeover began three decades ago.

Zhang Wanli, deputy researcher with the Sociology Institute of China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), says that before 1978 China had three classes - peasants, workers and intellectuals. Private enterprise was strictly prohibited.

A peasant who sold eggs in a rural free market would be seen as "a capitalist tail" that had to be cut off.

Restrictions were gradually lifted starting in 1978. People could run private enterprises and employ workers. Later, foreign capital came.

There were new jobs, white-collar managers in foreign and domestic enterprises, owners of small and medium-sized enterprises. There were professionals, like lawyers and accountants.

Without the restraints of the old system, they gained the freedom of mobility that allowed them to acquire economic interests, like entrepreneurship and knowledge, in the budding markets.

However, the new class has stirred controversies.

Many people believe a middle-class family should own at least one apartment and one car, have a golf club membership, and often travel overseas. In other words, it is a lifestyle of the rich.

"I have no car, and I live in an apartment built as work unit accommodation from the CASS," says Zhang. "But when I was interviewing a millionaire entrepreneur at one time, he said I definitely belong to the middle class."

Zhang says social status and professions, rather than incomes, play more important roles in defining social classes. In 2001, results of a CASS nationwide survey found that the middle class accounted for 20 percent of the population.

Recent years have witnessed the rise of the middle class' political status. Intellectuals discuss public policies in the media. Governments and legislatures consult lawyers and accountants on laws and regulations.

Civil society

At the end 2007, residents of the scenic coastal city of Xiamen, southeast China's Fujian Province, protested peacefully against a plan to build an 11-billion-yuan factory producing the industrial chemical paraxylene. This arose after local chemical scientist Zhao Yufen, who is also with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, identified potential risks and urged reconsideration.

After his proposal was published, residents and property owners near the project site worried about the environmental impact, expressing opposition through the Internet, text messages and "walks" at the site. The government later suspended the project.

The case is widely seen as the rising political influence of China's middle class. Popular newspaper Southern Weekly called it a milestone for the rise of a civil society.

(Shanghai Daily June 15, 2009)

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