|Bill Chong is the face of the New China. Young, educated, married and an apartment owner, Chong is part of the rising middle class that is transforming modern China. They are mesmerized by Western ways and want the freedoms we take for granted. A tour guide by profession, Chong understands China’s history and respects his ancestral roots. But the gap between the 29-year-old Beijiner and his Manchurian parents who live a one-and-a-half-day drive to the north of China’s capital city is widening.
For China’s emerging middle class, this is an age of aspiration—but also a time of anxiety. The New China often clashes with the old. The once rigid structure of China’s 5,000-year-old culture is bending and pressure continues to mount on the government to lessen its centuries-old iron grip on every-day life.
Chong and his wife, also in the booming hospitality industry, could easily be the poster couple for the new middle class, something China’s most famous leader, Mao, sought to stamp out less than a half century ago. The Chongs are among an estimated 100 million to 150 million people now considered middle class, often defined in this industrializing nation as those with a household income of about $10,000 annually.
The Chongs could easily pass for a young professional couple living in Irvine or elsewhere in Orange County. They furnished their two-bedroom, one-bath suburban apartment at the Beijing IKEA superstore. They watch TV to relax and eat out with friends for entertainment (Pizza Hut is a favorite for special occasions). Chong commutes to work, sometimes up to 90 minutes depending on his assignment, from the city’s eastern edge and his workdays are long—10 to 12-hours and often six days per week (during the Olympics Chong will work non-stop for nearly a month leading tours of foreigners daily). The couple has no children, but want to have a family someday. “We are saving because children are expensive,” he shared on a 90-minute bus ride from central Beijing to the Great Wall in the mountains to the northeast.
Friendly and unassuming, Chong talked openly about being twentysomething in China today, including his fears and hopes for this economic powerhouse of 1.3 billion people. There was just my wife, three children and myself along with Chong and the driver on the bus as we rumbled past lush green fields of corn and orchards of peaches and apples. “I’m optimistic about the future, yes, I truly am,” he said confidently as we navigated the narrow country road. “There are problems in China’s future, but the opportunities we have now are good.”
Home ownership is a big one. In 1998, when the government launched reforms to commercialize the housing market, it was the rare person who owned an apartment. Today, home ownership is common and prices have risen beyond what most young couples can afford. It’s as if everything that happened in America over 50 years was collapsed into a single decade in China. With the help of his parents (“they save and save and save,” Chong said), Chong was able to purchase his apartment three years ago in a rapidly growing suburb 25 kilometers east of downtown Beijing. The area is dotted with scores of high-rise apartments that have transformed the skyline in many Beijing districts. Once a flat cityscape, Beijing has skyscraper fever. Construction cranes hang in the air like pre-historic birds in nearly every direction. Disappearing are the traditional courtyard houses that date back to the days of the emperor’s in the mid 15th Century. Progress has its costs and Chong sees more pluses than minuses in Beijing’s emergence as a true global center. Owning his home is one of those benefits.
“Today, my apartment would cost about $900,000 yuan (about $133,000 U.S.),” said Chong, a university graduate with a degree in English literature. “My same apartment downtown would cost $3 million yuan ($444,000 U.S.). I feel lucky to own a home.” Real estate in the past 5 years has been appreciating in Beijing, Shanghai and other large Chinese cities at a double-digit clip.
Private-ownership of cars is another middle class status symbol, though Chong and his wife have not jumped into the auto market. “What’s the point?” he asks. “Gas is expensive (almost the same as in the U.S.) and there is very little public parking in Beijing. We take taxi or subway (both cheap by big city standards) and save money.”
Chong is part of the societal change sweeping China, including the largest urbanization in human history. An estimated 150 million people have left the countryside, mostly to work in the factory towns on the coast. One in four residents of Beijing is a migrant from the country. For three decades China’s economy has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent, giving rise to the middle class and Western wants and desires. American companies are rushing to capitalize. There are more KFC’s in Beijing than you can find driving through Louisville and you can find Subway on nearly every corner. Hooters and Starbucks are here and so is LensCrafters eyewear. Chong and his friends now communicate by emai and cell phones; long gone is the cheap onionskin paper his parent’s generation used to send letters. China has the world’s largest number of Internet users—220 million—surpassing Web surfers in the U.S. Cell phones in China have grown from 87 million in 2000 to 432 million today.
This moment is history is not lost on Chong nor is the importance of the Olympics. “This is a big chance for China to show the world that we are modern,” Chong said. “We want to be accepted.” He acknowledges problems—pollution and terrorism and internal political unrest in region’s like Tibet. He also worries about China’s younger generation because “they may lose touch with our values.” Obesity has never been much of a concern. But the convenience and cache of eating regularly at a Western “burger joint” or pizza restaurant has triggered fears of childhood obesity. “I worry that families become lazy and eat out because its easy and quick,” Chong said. “We have to be careful not to become a lazy society.”
Despite the challenges, Chong believes China is better today. More people have been lifted out of poverty in China than in any other country at any other time because of 30 years of economic expansion. “I have freedoms and choices now that my parents never dreamed of. It is a good time in China. I just hope it continues.”