Just seven years ago, Huang Chenping dreamed about moving to the United States to pursue the American dream. He had just paid off his first car, which he used to transport tourists and locals around Beijing. Instead, he stayed.
Today, Huang, 43, makes a monthly income of 13,000 RMB ($2,050) and owns a fleet of five cars, as well as the Beijing apartment where he lives with his wife and 18-year-old son. “I would love to travel there [to the U.S.],” he says, “but China is a better place to be right now. I have a stable job, and can still grow economically.”
Like Huang, millions of Chinese citizens are enjoying the benefits of their newfound socioeconomic status: they can get a college degree, buy a car and move out of their parents’ homes. They are members of China’s middle class—one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the world, predicted by the McKinsey Institute to reach 612 million by the year 2025.
Though definitions vary, members of this group have common characteristics. They are typically city dwellers, have a college education and hold relatively stable employment. Most of them are either entrepreneurs, white-collar workers or government officials.
Nevertheless, members of this new middle class are also a particularly anxious breed. “There are a lot of fears about how stable the system is,” says Helen Wang, a Forbes columnist and author of The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You (2010). Wang observes that many Chinese are concerned with building a personal safety net in case China’s economy turns sour. They tend to invest mostly in property or businesses with high return rates, avoiding savings accounts in order to hide the real value of their worth and reduce their taxes.
Another common trait is conspicuous consumption. “Symbols of status are very important,” says Wang, “This is why you see so many iPhones and Louis Vuitton bags.”
Indeed, as consumer spending has kept pace with the growth of the middle class, China has surpassed Japan as the largest luxury goods market in the world.
The rise of China’s middle class has also been accompanied by the emergence of individuals who disdain typical career paths. Ouyang Xiao, 28, for example, works as a freelance translator in Beijing and is preparing to pursue a PhD in philosophy in the United States. Two decades ago, he says, his parents would never have had the option of choosing their own career or going against the grain. Newly empowered, Ouyang and his peers can make that choice today.
Natalia Tobón is co-founder and director of China Files, a Beijing-based communications agency for Spanish-language media outlets.