China’s emerging middle class are increasingly leaving the country to live abroad, according to the most recent statistics. In 2010, 508,000 Chinese left for the 34 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2011, the United States received 87,000 permanent residents from China, up from 70,000 the previous year, indicating that 2011, for which figures are not yet available, will show an increase in the numbers leaving China.
To some extent this is a result of their highly regimented society coming to more closely resemble that of other large, powerful free market countries. As the economy and society were liberalised the housing market boomed and pushed the price of an apartment beyond many people’s grasp. At the same time, unemployment soared and a generation gap has appeared, as children find themselves more attuned to the new society’s mores and expectations than their parents. There’s a feeling amongst middle class Chinese that the world is changing too fast.
Some are leaving because China feels instable to them. A new Chairman of the one-Party state’s governing Communist Party, Xi Jinping, is due to be installed on November 8. His policies are uncertain, and Chinese professionals are becoming more aware of the precariousness of affluence without influence. The next government won’t be chosen by elections as we understand the term. Cao Cong is an associate professor at the University of Nottingham’s School of Chinese Studies who has studied patterns of Chinese emigration. He observes that middle class Chinese “don’t feel secure for their future and especially for their children’s future€¦ they don’t think the political situation is stable.’
The Chinese middle class is as ill defined as any other – an income of $10k is one standard. The term is usually taken to refer to a cohort that eats out, owns a home and a car, and is conscious of foreign brands and foreign ideas. In a highly conformist society the 100 to 150 million people who make up this group behave in public, but in private they can be highly critical of China.
One reason for this is that the Chinese middle class are unlikely to have the positive experiences of the American middle class; the resource-stripping that has powered the Chinese economy’s phenomenal growth up to now is clearly unsustainable, and in its place “cleaner’ modes of living are being proposed. The word “green’ doesn’t sell well in China, but that’s what’s meant by those who put forward plans for more vertical dwellings, more shared services with an emphasis on access rather than ownership and more ecommerce and elearning to cut down on costly and environmentally detrimental commuting. However, all these things sound like a return to China’s collectivist past and many Chinese with valuable skills see the chance of a better life lying elsewhere.
There’s additional reason to feel concern for even basic safety in China. Earlier this year evidence emerged that one of the most senior figures in the Communist Party, Bo Xilai, operated a personal fiefdom involved in extortion, torture and murder. Liang Zhai, a migration expert at the university of Albany, says, “people wonder what’s going to happen two, three years down the road.’
Many middle class Chinese children have been prepared from childhood to go to the West. Regimented lives of English Conversation lessons and English names, piano and extra maths are meant to result in a young adult who might go to America to study. But increasingly it’s not just these children or their professional parents who are leaving China.
Zhang Ling owns a restaurant in Wenzhuo, a coastal city in China. He and his blue collar extended family pooled their resources to send his son to high school in Vancouver, Canada. The plan is to get him into a Canadian university and obtain permanent residency. Potentially the rest of the family could move overseas: “It’s like a chair with different legs,’ explains Mr. Zhang. “We want one leg in Canada just in case a leg breaks.’
Photo credits: Faungg via Flickr