What does it mean to be middle class?
The Straits Times, March 11, 2013
The people of Hong Kong had a good laugh two weeks ago when Financial Secretary John Tsang asserted that he understands well the worries of the middle class – being a member of it himself. The next day, Tsang, who earns HK$302,205 (US$38,957) a month and lives rent-free in a government house at the Peak, generated more derisive mirth as he sought to clarify his statement. What defines the middle class is not so much one’s income but lifestyle, he said.
“I have read articles that say the middle class are people who drink coffee and like French movies. I like movies and tea, so there’s not much difference (in my life) with the lives of the middle class.”
Tsang has a tin ear. Beneath the sniggers was a bitterness over how middle class status – and its entitlements – seems to be slipping many Hong Kongers by.
The Economist magazine, in a report in 2009, characterised the middle class as having a reasonable amount of discretionary income. Diana Farrell of the McKinsey Centre for Government defined it as beginning at the point where people – after paying for basic food and shelter – have a third of income left for consumer goods, health care and education.
In Singapore, there is no official definition, although two National University of Singapore academics, who published a study on the subject last November, defined the middle class as those whose household income falls between S$2,001 and S$5,000 – 40 per cent of the citizen population.
But other criteria – including yes, lifestyle – hold sway as well. In Hong Kong, they include, besides income, accumulated wealth (such as assets like property), social status and lifestyle, says Professor Francis Liu, head of economics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
With the economy today latched to the mainland, one key way of moving up the ladder is to tap the burgeoning Chinese market – from finding ways to supply milk powder to mainland mothers, to seeking business opportunities in the rising Pearl River Delta.
But few want to. A recent survey of post-1990s youth found that 60 per cent are unwilling to work or study on the mainland. Says Hong Kong University sociologist Hayes Tang: “They are less pragmatic. Emotionally they are less attached to – even against – the Chinese identity. Some want the British National Overseas passport which can enhance their cultural status, but is less useful than the Hong Kong Chinese passport for travelling without visa.”
In that sense, he adds, the local identity may pose a “structural obstacle” for the younger generations in becoming socially mobile.
So that leaves lifestyle.
That, by contrast, is relatively easy to attain. HK$100 buys one a middle class night at the movies with a Starbucks latte in hand.