Hai Ren
Hai Ren

Despite its image in the mass media as “the world’s factory floor,” China now has the world’s largest shopping malls, and a new “middle class” has become a critical component of the once classless society.

Barely recognized in the West, this relatively new emphasis on domestic consumption characterizes how a Chinese middle class has replaced the proletarian in the commune as the ideal citizen in the People’s Republic of China.

UA Prof. Hai Ren, an associate professor of East Asian studies and anthropology, will discuss this transformation, which combines both capitalist and socialist characteristics, in a 3:30 p.m. lecture at the Arizona Senior Academy on Wednesday (Oct. 9).

Ren will share his research on China’s conversion from a socialist country into a neoliberal state since the late 1970s. While the term “neoliberalism” has been used in many ways over the past half century, Ren said he uses it to define “a philosophy of governance that displaces political sovereignty with economic sovereignty in contemporary globalization.”

It’s hard for Westerners to think of Chinese citizens as anything but skilled assembly line workers turning out low-priced goods for export to the West. But Ren says a new middle class citizen has emerged, one who was once criticized as an exploiter of the people but is now seen as a “successful person.”

This new ideal citizen, according to Ren, is typically portrayed in the Chinese mass media as “a   married middle-aged businessman. He wears designer labels, owns an apartment with a garden, drives a car, socializes in bars, nightclubs and hotels, plays golf and attends concerts.”

“These shifts have changed Chinese society from one of the world’s most equal societies to one of its most unequal,” Ren writes. “China has become a risk society in which responsibility for employment, welfare, education, health, poverty alleviation and the environment have become redistributed from government to nongovernmental organizations and from the collective to the individual.”

Consumerism was never mentioned in Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, but that didn't keep this photo-shopped poster from circulating in China recently.
Consumerism was never mentioned in Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, but that didn’t keep this photo-shopped poster from circulating in China recently.

Ren received his BA in History and Archeology from Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, and a Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology from the University of Washington in Seattle.  He has written two books on the social and economic changes going on in China: “Neoliberalism and Culture in China and Hong Kong: The Countdown of Time” (2010) and a sequel, “The Middle Class in Neoliberal China: Governing Risk, Life-Building, and Themed Spaces” (2012).

Submitted by Mike Maharry, Academy Village Volunteer

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Prof to Discuss China’s Shift to Consumerism: Oct. 2013
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