Forty years ago, the social structure in China was fairly simple. It consisted mainly of two proletariat classes—workers and peasants. Four decades since the economic reforms, class structures and relations in China have become much more complex and unstable. As China’s social stratification deepens, new class identities are emerging, and class structures and class relations are being redefined. (Listen to a guest podcast I did on this topic here).
…[T]he analysis of the relationship between class and consumption is particularly important in times of radical social restructuring.
Consumption affords a key site in which class-related aspirations, anxieties and fears are simultaneously articulated and addressed. For this reason, the analysis of the relationship between class and consumption is particularly important in times of radical social restructuring. A key aspect of this analysis is asking how individuals interpret consumer items and activities, and how their interpretations are imbued with class-related anxieties and aspirations.
To most Western analysts, consumption in China has mostly been talked about in the context of the rising middle classes. However, few studies systematically attempt to compare the consumption practices of different socioeconomic groups. As a result of these gaps, we are unclear about how inequality shapes the formation of class identity through consumption. A related problem is a tendency in existing research to focus on the consumption of material goods and services, while overlooking the related questions of respectability, status recognition, and achievement of upward social mobility.
One social group that I am particularly interested in exploring is China’s rural migrant workers. This is an extremely big and diverse cohort in terms of place of origin, types of labour, generational difference, and migration history. A Chinese Census published in 2016 reveals that the number of internal migrants has now reached 278 million. Generally but not categorically speaking, due to their rural origin and ambiguous status as “peasant-workers,” the social status of this group is inferior to that of what are usually referred to as “blue collar workers”—members of the urban “working class.”
Young rural migrant workers have little knowledge of farming, nor do they want to go back to their villages. At the same time, their prospects of settling in the city are hardly better than those of their parents. Ownership of a flat/house and a car—things that urban middle class residents take for granted—is a pipe dream for most of them, and most migrant workers, especially men—are also daunted by the cost of getting married.
In comparison, young, university-educated professionals in their 20s and 30s enjoy more security, since they have the precious urban residency status that is denied to rural migrants. They are usually described in the popular media as the “young white collar” class. Making every effort to get ahead professionally in the competitive job market, individuals in this cohort work hard to pay off mortgages and start a family. “Young white collars” are therefore faring much better than individuals of the “ant tribe,” who, despite having a university education and a white collar job, cannot afford to buy or rent a decent place of their own and have to make do with sub-standard shared rental accommodation.
Yet, in comparison with “gold collars”—those in their 40s and 50s who occupy managerial positions in the transnational corporate sector—the young white collars face more pressure and less security. Those still paying off their apartment often lament the high cost of living in the big city, and dread the extra financial burden associated with bringing up a child one day in the future. Nevertheless, individuals from this group aim to strike a balance between work and leisure, and increasingly, they reward themselves with high-end consumer items such as overseas tourism and luxury goods, especially before the arrival of any children.
In my paper, I juxtapose these two social groups, and ask how individuals from these different social cohorts in contemporary China think about and rationalize their myriad consumption-related decisions—what to purchase, how much money to spend, and for what purposes. I believe how they answers these questions can tell us a lot about class formation in the contemporary Chinese context.
Given that both these groups are at marriageable age, it seems logical to study their consumption practices surrounding weddings and marriages. Among many romance and wedding-related consumption activities, taking professional bridal photos and purchasing diamond rings seem to be effective prisms through which we can explore individuals’ consumption practices.
Adopting a qualitative research method, and conducting fieldwork in Shenzhen and Nanjing, I conducted ethnographic interactions and in-depth conversations with more than two dozen young men and women in their 20s and 30s from these two different social groups. I ask how these individuals think, talk, and make decisions about how and why they take wedding photos, and if and why they purchase diamond rings.
One key finding from this research is that due to the transitional nature of social change in contemporary China, class identities are relatively new and more volatile, and class structures are less clearly defined. This transitional nature in the change of social structures has implications on the choices and decisions people make as consumers. It is true that the middle class in China has more means to define and shape the dominant meanings of love and romance, but individuals from the aspiring middle classes, especially the “young white collar” cohort, are not necessarily in a position to adopt individualistic romantic practices. Young urban professionals are anxious to maintain what I call “probationary” membership of the middle class. They are fearful of falling out of it. This anxiety and fear explain why they are less interested in exploring alternative, individualistic romantic practices, and more interested in consolidating their belonging to that class by adopting similar consumption practices to those who had already made to the middle-class status.
Another key finding relates to the sociological meaning of luxury goods. Research in this paper suggests that it is important to consider the democratisation of luxury goods as an ongoing, open-ended process for three reasons. First, the notion of “luxury” is class-specific: one class’s luxury is another class’s everyday consumption. Second, what counts as luxury is subject to constant change: today’s luxury goods may be “common or garden variety” goods tomorrow. Finally, increasingly, luxury goods need to position potential buyers in ways that appeal simultaneously to their aspiration to belong and to their anxiety about not belonging.