In a crowded and noisy restaurant off the former Ave Haig in French Shanghai two young women shared our table. It was 2005 and the new China was erupting around us, while the old China fell into the dust of demolition. In perfect conversational but American accented English the women told us they were studying MBAs locally in an international college, while working for an American multinational finance company. I reflected that five years before, a young tour guide also a business college student, had regaled me with the difficulties of economic change – when he had started his degree he needed to earn enough for a motorbike to impress a woman into marriage. By the time he would graduate, the bike would have to be a car and he wasn’t in the race without a deposit for a flat. The once attractive job of English-language guide was now passé, incapable of providing the income already being earned by his class-mates in their business ventures. And of course his dreams for marriage were fading with his economic place in the hierarchy.
David Goodman and the researchers and associates of the China Centre at UTS have created a great collection of articles, analysing this new China and its multiple possible readings. Goodman has been studying the transformation of social class in China for many years, with earlier work really setting the wider research agenda. At the heart of the project is an intellectual challenge, what does it mean to talk about “class” in an ostensibly communist (state socialist) society? Do we abandon the models of class developed to deal with the Euro-American capitalist economies, so closely connected to their struggle between the relational theorists with their roots in Marxism, and the stratificationists with their obeisance to Max Weber. Are we dealing with relations of production, or relations of consumption? Should the changing patterns of Chinese society draw only descriptive labelling (eg rich, poor, middle) with an operational definition based on statistical delineation of different categories of income (hard to do when everyone lies about their income to avoid tax)? Or should the approach be one of consumption and lifestyle – of habitus to use Bourdieu’s summary term for the amalgam of lifestyle, patterns of thought and social practices? Tougher Marxists would draw us back to consider the political and economic relations generated by the changing power over productive resources.
The book is divided into fourteen chapters allocated to one of three sections – class status and power; entrepreneurs managers and professionals; and lifestyle. This reflects the western sociological categories that powers the analyses adopted here. Goodman himself argues that there is no new middle class in China, but rather a grouping of cadres, managers and professionals who have both driven and benefited from the reforms since the 1980s. I thought this might fit in well with a sort of contemporary privatising expansion of the old Soviet nomenklatura and has similarities with the specific conceptualisation of the new class first articulated by Milovan Djilas in his 1950s critique of the emergent class structure of Tito’s Yugoslavia.
The research base of the book is strong, covering most parts of China and exploring the dynamic relations between growing wealth, social inequality, education, and democratising values. The work on gender relations reflects the both growing importance of women in the modernising process, and the emergence of women activists around questions of equality and safety. Yet the overall impression is of a society in which the new dominant social groups have fused into a single class of managerially-focussed wealth-securing self-interested consumers whose political interests now lie in state control of potential social unrest and disaffection generated by the increasingly broad chasm between the winners and the losers in the New China. Strangely given the time of the book’s release the issues associated with the economic and political exploitation of Tibet/Xizang do not appear.
Overall the collection is an important contribution to the understanding in the West of China’s emergence as the alternate empire, with its incipient strategy for the new Chinese century.