The College Entrance Examination
In late 1970, China reintroduced the college entrance examination after a period of turbulences. This exam was open to all, regardless of origin, rich or poor. In 1977, about 5.700.000 people took part in the exam. 30.000 were chosen by the university to enroll. In the late 70s and 80s, those who went to university were described as "god‘s favorite one".
They were part of China's reform and opening-up process from 1978, contributing in areas like economy, industry, agricultural science, aerospace and other areas that have completely enhanced China's economic and cultural development. Because of them, a middle class was established in China for the first time. – Let’s just use "earning 100.000 to 500.000 Yuan (~12.658 to 63.290 Euro) annual income" as the criteria for defining the Chinese middle class in our article, even though it is not 100 % accurate.
Education as the key to an upward mobility
Western society is in a stable state in terms of social mobility, meaning, the social class has been solidified. For example in the US a child of a university professor will grow up with a very good education, most likely becoming a scholar or an artist in the future. The child of a worker who only goes to public school and has no support for learning will, to a large extent, also get a simple job in the future.
In Germany, going to university is very easy, so I was slightly shocked when I heard that many Germans still choose not to go to university, but to attend “Ausbildung”. Later, the Germans explained to me that one can have a well-paid job after joining the “Ausbildung”. The blue-collar often earns as much as the white-collar or at least without a big salary gap. In China, a middle class white-collar with a university degree earns 2 to 10 times more than a blue-collar. This are completely two classes.
A good example is that Chinese people who work as black workers in developed countries will do their best to ensure their children's education. Their children with a good score at school should become white collars/middle class in the future, while immigrants from other countries who work as black workers in developed countries do not care about their children's education at all, which means their children's class will probably not change in the future.
As mentioned before, the Chinese value education. Everyone, regardless of class, does everything they can to help their children get an education and achieve a good score. A child from a farmer family earning a few thousand Yuan (~ a few hundred Euro) a year can end up going to college, getting a decent job and earning thousands of RMB in one month. What enables this upward social class mobility is the fair college entrance exam system with a limited range of question scope and with correct answers for 99.9 % of questions, which means achieving higher scores relies on memorization and hard work.
The high tuition fees for good universities in the US or the need for so-called letters of recommendation, or having sport achievements such as Equestrian are very unfair in the eyes of Chinese people. We consider it as a game for rich people, leaving the lower class with no hope to move up.
In our opinion, the western world has stable social mobility, the gate leading to a higher class is closed. Each class can retain as long as they live normally and follow the rules.
Falling down to the lower class
But one "benefit" of the closing of the mobility gate is that there is no risk of falling downward. In China, a middle class and some new rich upper class can fall to the lower class quite easily.
One reason is the social welfare system. For example, if a middle-class family member has a bad illness, the cost for the treatment can bring down the entire family and cause a bankruptcy – just imagine you were living in the US without a health insurance.
Another reason is due to the lack of labor law protections and fierce competition. For Chinese, the working environment in the western world is more like a calm lake, while the working environment in China is more like a waterfall. As long as you don't move forward, you will move backward. Let's take the IT industry as an example.
Many companies in China are now implementing the 996 system, which means working from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., six days a week. Some of the bigger companies pay overtime, offering enough salary to enter the middle class, so many young people prefer to go to these companies, although it is considered as an extreme consumption of the body.
More and more, companies are starting to establish 996 as a “normal” working model, so they only pay the average salary. Under this kind of working pressure, the age of 35 has become a watershed. Many companies explicitly state on their job ad that they are only hiring people under the age of 35. Moreover, many companies have already started to fire employees over 35, directly and indirectly. After all, China has a huge labor market and there are plenty of young people willing to take low wages. From an economic point of view, it is in the best interest of the company to replace expensive, older employees with cheaper, younger ones, and there are no sanctions for doing so.
You may argue that the working experience is also valuable. But due to the division of labor everyone becomes easily replaceable, the speed of knowledge update in many industries is very fast, such as in the IT industry. Today's expertise may be replaced by newer knowledge tomorrow, which requires a constant learning and an acceptance of new things. The problem is that the 996 working schedule does not leave time to learn. In addition, in China, an employee does not need to think independent because experienced leaders make decisions. Employees just execute the task. Not everyone can become a leader, so most people are just "people who execute a task from above" who can be replaced easily.
In this environment, every employee works with anxiety and fear, especially the middle class who has already adapted to the "good" life, carrying a huge mortgage, driving a good car, paying money to support their parents and their children. Once they lose their current job, they lose everything. They force themselves to think about their career and Plan B constantly, but not out of passion but out of fear.
This middle-class is responsible for their children's education. They know the cruelty of the market, they know that the consequences of not working hard. So they do everything they can to support their children's education and let them learn all kinds of knowledge and specialties that can help them to attend good universities so that they can have a good and hopefully stable job. At this point, their motivation is to prevent them from falling to the lower class.
Author: Yue Liu, Spiegel Institut Mannheim