Consumption patterns of the middle class in contemporary China: a case study in Beijing

by Di Zhu

Institution: University of Manchester
Year: 2011
Keywords: consumer orientation, consumption, middle class, China, mixed methods
Record ID: 1409285
Full text PDF: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/escholar/uk-ac-man-scw:123330


This thesis, set against the background of accounts of globalisation, aims to figure out the consumer orientation of the middle class in contemporary China, in particular how the new elements in consumer orientation operate in the Chinese context. It focuses on the contemporary middle class, including professionals, managers, business-owners and civil servants, and on the metropolitan cities, because these are the two most important factors in the rise of consumer culture in China. Data come from the China General Social Survey of 2003 and 30 interviews with middle class people in Beijing carried out in 2008. The quantitative analysis is concerned with characteristics of the middle class in the metropolitan cities and their participation in consumption practices. Qualitative analysis provides a comprehensive analysis of the consumption patterns and the consumer orientations of 30 adults and considers subjective interpretations in specific contexts. The focus is the consumption patterns from everyday consumption, taste and material culture, and the findings are interpreted in relation to major theories in the sociology of consumption. In order to understand consumption patterns, this dissertation seeks accounts of consumer orientations: the distinct or particular reasons for purchasing and using certain material goods and services. Consumption patterns are also explained against the background of globalization, and in relation to the essential features of Chinese culture, social changes and social conventions. The analysis draws attention particularly to the justifications of tastes by the Chinese middle class and exposes their concomitant anxieties and ambivalence. It is shown that pursuit of pleasure, tempered with pursuit of comfort, is a significant form of aesthetic justification; and living within one’s means, i.e. keeping a balance between expenditure and income, is the main moral justification. The orientation to personal pleasure and comfort is shaped by social conventions, traditional values and the metropolitan context. Consumer sovereignty, as opposed to social discipline and authority, becomes a force. Despite anxieties and ambivalence, the interviewees generally show satisfaction and confidence with their consumption. The findings challenge the stereotype of the Chinese ‘new rich’ and the one-dimensional pictures of tendencies towards either conspicuous display or frugality.