Saturday, August 13, 2005

A Capitalist Paradise

The Urban Middle Class has a Lifestyle that looks Familiar

BEIJING--Four-year-old An-An is tearing through the store, looking for toy cars. His mother, Dong Wei, chases after him, dodging couples measuring kitchen cabinets and reclining chairs bearing unpronounceable faux-Scandinavian names translated into Chinese.

It is a Sunday afternoon at the Ikea superstore here, and Dong and her family are on a mission--along, it seems, with a substantial part of the rest of the city. The line for the parking lot is almost an hour long, the norm for a weekend. The store teems with families in a consumerist frenzy, armed with pencils, measuring tapes, and photographs of their new homes. Dong Wei and her husband, Cao Jie, are there to buy a bookcase for An-An and a new computer table for the study. Really. But then a television stand catches her eye, and a colorful CD rack his, and oh yes, doesn't An-An need a new bedspread?

Dreams. Like the other middle-class couples proliferating in China, Dong and Cao are living a life their parents could never have imagined. They recently bought an apartment, which they spend most of their time decorating. They eat out often. On the weekends, they take An-An to play with other pampered only-children, at a "fun center" filled with spongy balls and trampolines. Their ambitions are less of the traditional Chinese "be a good worker and serve your country" variety. Instead they fall more in line with middle-class U.S. families who focus on making more money, buying a bigger house, and getting their kids into a good school. Dong, a 38-year-old wearing jeans, eyeliner, and a Samsonite shoulder bag, works in the Ministry of Commerce's Latin America division and travels to the region four or five times a year. Her husband worked in the government until recently but just left to start a business with a partner, selling medical equipment. "In a state-owned enterprise, it's hard to fully exercise your potential," says Cao. "In the past, we felt like we needed to hug the iron rice bowl and not let go. Now I want to see how far I can go."

A generation ago, young couples worked in state-owned enterprises, living in company housing with few possessions of their own. The most they wished for was having enough for their family to eat. With the dismantling of the state system over the past decade, more people are exploring other options--both for work and for life. Dong and Cao bought a car--"a Jetta!" An-An pipes up--back in 1997, and they aspire to save enough to buy a bigger home, so that An-An can have his own room. "Life in China is not that different from America right now," says Cao.

On the road out to the airport, new developments have sprung up over the past year or two, with names like Central Park, Yosemite, Palm Springs, and Orange County. In these planned utopias, trappings of American middle-class life are on offer: backyards, barbecues, and basements with pool tables. While some cater to foreigners and very wealthy Chinese, an increasing number are being marketed to this new tier of young Chinese families with global tastes.

In the past, couples lived with the man's parents, even after marriage. Now, the trend is for young couples to buy their own apartments and move out. Although Cao's parents live in Beijing, they live separately. "Very few of our friends live with their parents," says Dong. "We need more space now."

They are also saving up for a lifetime of schooling for An-An, which in China, with state-sponsored education but growing disparities in its schools, can get expensive. The couple now spend the equivalent of $100 per month on kindergarten for their son, which they say is cheap compared with some of the private kindergartens currently in vogue with their friends, which can run over $12,000 for three years.

Looking to the future, they hope An-An will go overseas to study--but not until after high school, when he can decide for himself. "Our generation did not have the opportunity to learn instruments or play sports," says Cao. "Our lives are better than our parents', but I want our son to have even more freedom than us." -Bay Fang

6/20/05 US News & World Report


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