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 (CPA) in an international accounting firm, he enjoys a life of great vicissitudes.
Born into a rural family in east China's Zhejiang Province, Wang says his parents are traditional 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.
Now 29, he earns more than 200,000 yuan (29,000 U.S. dollars) a year by working on initial public offerings for the companies which look to list on the stock exchange.
Considering China reported a per-capita GDP of 2,042 U.S. dollars in 2007, it makes Wang fairly well off. But, he asks not to use his Chinese name, as in China, exposing one's wealth is not wise.
His parents live the same as they have for decades. While they knew their son works in a foreign-funded accounting firm, they are unaware of how the firm makes money.
Wang lives with his fiancée 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.
"I'm lucky, but others have similar stories," says Wang. “It's a trend."
In developed cities, like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other major metropolitan areas, Wang and his ilk are making a group that has only existed in China since the country's economic makeover began three decades ago.
Thirty years ago, Wang's parents lived in a people's commune, a commune-like organization in which everything was collectively owned by the member peasants. Workers in factories enjoyed cradle-to-grave welfare. Another group, the intellectuals, including professors in colleges and show folks, were tied in different organizations.
Situations changed as China embraced a policy of opening to the outside world and reform in 1978, when national leader Deng Xiaoping and his supporters decided to end the class struggle and turn to economic development.
Zhang Wanli, deputy researcher with the Sociology Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), notes that before 1978 China had three classes - peasants, workers, and intellectuals. Private enterprise was strictly prohibited. A peasant who sold eggs in rural free market would be seen as "the tail of capitalism" that had to be cut off.
Restrictions were gradually lifted from 1978. People could run private enterprises and employ workers. Later, foreign capital came. Thanks to those changes, commercial, financial and services sectors grew rapidly. New jobs, white-collar managers in foreign and domestic enterprises, owners of small and medium-sized enterprises, came into existence. So did professionals, like lawyers and accountants.
Without the restraints of the old system, they gained the freedom of mobility that allowed them acquire economic interests, like entrepreneurship and knowledge, in the budding markets.
“They do brainwork, and they use their cultural capital and professional skills to earn their living,” says Zhang Wanli.
However, the new class has stirred up controversies. Many people believe "middle class" is a lifestyle. They think 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.