China’s Imaginary Middle Class
THE SOURCE: “Crossing the 50 Percent Population Rubicon: Can China Urbanize to Prosperity?” by Kam Wing Chan, in Eurasian Geography and Economics, Jan.–Feb. 2012.
In China, social mobility is inextricably tied to migration—the best-paying jobs are in cities. As more and more Chinese trade the hoe for the conveyor belt, the thinking goes, a middle class will naturally form. There are reasons to trust such a scenario: It has been a classic pattern since Britain pioneered it during the Industrial Revolution. Last year, for the first time in China’s history, more than half of the country’s population (which then totaled almost 1.35 billion people) was living in cities. Furthermore, a Brookings Institution economist has estimated that China’s middle class will grow from 12 percent of the population in 2010 to 50 percent by 2021.
But geographer Kam Wing Chan, of the University of Washington, Seattle, argues that the development of a Chinese middle class faces a formidable obstacle: the hukou system, a residential registration scheme imposed under Mao Zedong that governs local employment eligibility and access to schooling and other government services. Chan thinks it threatens to choke off the benefits of urbanization.
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