Chinese Middle Class Values…anyone? Anyone?

This is an older post, from 2015, that I just found in a drafts folder today (2018) and thought I should post anyway. I wondered how much has changed in the ensuing 3 years?


One of the things that continues to intrigue me about incredible rise of China is a seemingly mandatory desire for immediate wealth.  Not that the desire to be rich is bad or that in China the desire is any different than anywhere else in the world; but that in China, because of the rapidity of development of the middle class, there seems to be a very identifiable desire to be rich NOW and to be rich solely for the purpose of being rich.

(While I have certainly seen this first hand over the last 20 years in China, my opinion of this has also been influenced recently by the Chinese press’s recognition of a notable lack of successful domestic charities, extremely competitive conspicuous consumption and a general lack of middle-class sociopolitical motivations (other than immediate housing issues).  All of these issues have been documented about the new middle-class in modern urban China. For more academic works on these topics see: Li’s China’s Emerging Middle Class, Zhang’s In Search of Paradise, Osberg’s Anxious Wealth, Kleinman et al’s Deep China, Kipnis’s Governing Educational Desire, Chen’s China Urban)

This lifestyle, of course, leads many (Chinese and foreigners) to the realization later on in life that being rich for the sake of being rich is not really a value in and of itself.  Yes, there is the 0.1% that is rich and happy.  But after two and a half decades of work we are starting to see only a small minority of Chinese that are actually ending up rich, though often still unfulfilled, while the majority are not-rich and yet still unfulfilled and depressed that they’ve not met their goal of being rich.  If they’ve “made it” financially, the Chinese that I know have expressed surprise that the end all be all of their work-existence has left them with little of real value outside of a couple of pieces of variable-value real estate.  High rates of inflation, property bubbles, the one-child policy, no socialized medicine or education, increasing competition for grades and spouses, pollution and safety concerns and consumption for the sake of social status don’t help people establish an identity that lasts beyond the next fad or fashion.  Especially not the next generation.

More than a few times over the past few years we’ve had employees leave for “higher salaries” or “better opportunities.”  Certainly I hope that the majority of them worked out positively.  But for those I’ve kept in touch with (5-8 that I still contact regularly), only one says that she is “honestly very happy” about the decisions she made.  She left SRI to move back home, have a family and help take care of her parents.  Her husband has a decent but not great job in their home town and they bought a small apartment near to other family members.  They chose not to compete in the urban rat-race though they both had college degrees and opportunities.  This was their choice and it worked for them.  Congrats to them.  But for many socio-economic reasons I realize that it would not work for many many others.  Many other former employees are financially successful–all in jobs with more responsibility and higher wages that the previous example.  And all have larger mortgages and loans, fewer kids, and less time than they’d like to have.  Every single one lives farther from downtown than they think they should and are all saving the required $35K (or waiting the 12 years) to have their next child in Shenzhen.  They have more face but less joy than they did 10-15 years ago.  Each and every one has, at some point in our conversations and get-togethers, expressed to me some degree of disappointment with their current lives.  Usually due to a lack of kids and money and too much time and energy spent at work.  And none of them feel like they have any other choice.  The wolf culture is a strong influencer in urban white-collar Chinese society.

My wife used to always be frustrated with me because while I was the “boss” of the company I never dressed the part.  She would tell me that as a Chinese boss I should be wearing the best clothes in the office, driving the nicest car and owning the latest phones and watches.  She said that this was both expected by the factories I visited and also by my employees.  It gave them confidence that I had the cash to pay the bills (their salaries).  It gave them face to be working for someone that had “status” in the community.  But as an American “boss,” I made a different decision–I wore jeans and a polo to work each day.  I never wore the Omega watch my wife bought for me (unless we were going out on a date or to church), I never drove the car to work, choosing to walk or bike instead, and I typically wore ball-caps too (never green).  I was happy, partly because I didn’t have to compete in the Chinese cultural face game and also because I realize that money is a tool, not an end.  If I lost a project or an employee because I wasn’t putting on the correct aires, I’m fine with that.  To steal a phrase from a commercial, I’m comfortable in my own skin.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not rich nor am I saying that my choices are correct and others’ are wrong or that the former employee that decided to stay home is right and other working-moms are wrong.  I don’t want to be called out as having China straight-man cancer (my wife works; I’m very fine with that).  Each person has to make the choices that are best for their own situation.  My wife, for example, would die if she had to stay home each and every day.  It would drive her crazy.  She has he own business and loves what she does.  But she and I both recognized our roles and discussed our goals early on; because of that we know where we’re going and what makes us happy.  I really don’t know of very many Chinese people who have had an honest discussion with their significant other about doing more with less: can we be happy with less time together or less money or fewer kids or less stuff?  What if we don’t have face, will we be OK?  What do we really want?  Obviously, many people don’t have the luxury to ask these questions.  Many that can have this discussion, either don’t because they are “doing what everyone else is doing” or they (say they) are happy now or maybe they’ve just never realized they could.  And some, of course, love the rat race and all accompanying lifestyle.  To each their own!

I’m no counselor, but when employees and friends get married or have a change in life I always try to at least raise these issues with them and help them understand that, from my perspective at least, it’s probably wise to discuss these things with their spouse.  And it’s not just me pointing these these questions out either.  Fortunately, some Chinese are asking this of them selves.  And those that are not yet are either learning too late that they should have or are having it forced upon them as growth slows and expenses rise and kids get older.

It seems that this lesson is being learned earlier in life for employees in Foxconn.  From the article:

Liu said about the factory, “I have entered a system, and the system can provide everything that I need for my body. We have gymnastics, swimming pool, exercise room… The only thing they don’t provide is time.”

Because of the long hours (which remember, the workers desperately want and will seek elsewhere if they don’t get), it’s easy to lose touch with some simple human needs. Liu explained how roommates are always turning over or working different shifts, so it’s hard to make friends (or even learn people’s names). And because different departments are usually skewed one way or the other toward a single gender, it’s even harder to find a lover. He said the resulting emotional imbalance and conflicts over girls are often what spark fights in the factory.

The thing that surprised Liu most though, and what he sees as the biggest problem, is how workers seem completely puzzled about their futures. Earlier he wrote: “They often dream, but also repeatedly tear apart their dreams, like a miserable painter who keeps tearing up his drafts. ‘If we keep working like this, we might as well quit dreaming for the rest of our lives.’”

He says they’re almost all focused foremost on making a lot of money, but they don’t know how much is enough or what the next step is after making the money. They hope to move up in the world through their hard work, but they often don’t know where the path is, or if there even is a path. This, he says, could be a major problem in the future if society and the government can’t address it.

Workers probably don’t realize the blessing it is to have a “mid-life crisis” at age 25 rather than age 45.  It’s much easier to start over on building a career at age 25 when you’re still single than it is with a mortgage, a wife, a kid, and culture that doesn’t like to hire “older” (40+) workers.  Remember, these kids now (everyone under 40) have never had anyone with white-collar job experience to be an example for them let alone anyone with money tell them the “facts of life” about money, happiness and success.  They are an entire generation, an entire country that are learning on the fly and they’re getting very mixed messages (from the West, from their own govt and from their peers).

What does all this mean for foreign companies that are working in China?  It has a number of impacts on both how you understand and deal with employees as well as what you can do to better educate your employees (for your benefit as well as theirs).

First, recognize that wages are likely the number one most important motivator to your employees.  While this is changing a bit in the larger cities with the better educated white collar workers, it’s certainly still the standard for 99% of all job seekers in China.

Second, There is a huge gap in what’s expected and what is being achieved and most are just not seeing it until they are decades into their lives/careers.  Help employees with future planning and encourage education not just for promotions but in areas that will develop better people with life skills and talents and hobbies (rather than just job-training).

Third, bring in other Chinese that have the experiences that younger employees don’t have.  Use the power of status and select successful people, articles and books to  support the values/points you’re trying to help them understand.  We found out about 10 years ago that Steven Covey was both recognized and popular among business grads in China.  His books became an opportunity for us to both teach what we wanted in business but also give back life-skills to employees that we cared about.  Many of his books are available in Chinese (7 Habits and workbooks, for example).

Fourth, encourage entrepreneurialism.  Most Chinese employees have never had a job prior to graduation from college.  They likely have never had extensive experience with hobbies or activities like sports, music, scouts, re-building cars, religion or other things that most westerners did for years growing up (and used to get scholarships to pay for college).  They’ve never had part-time jobs while going to school.  While they are very smart and very diligent they likely need a lot of support and encouragement to do anything that is outside of their specific job description.  Entrepreneurialism breads personal responsibility and creativity.


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