A new Volkswagen and a Singapore vacation are the badges of
affluence for one Chinese couple. But consumer choice, not political
choice, is the only freedom China's middle class now enjoy.
The cramped two-room apartment filled with cheap, mismatched
furniture where Liu Likang lives with his wife, Xu Yao, would hardly
pass for a middle-class dwelling in America. Uncarpeted, lit by a
harsh light bulb hanging from the ceiling without a shade, the
rented bedroom-cum-sitting room looks more like temporary student
lodgings. Outside on the street, however, sits their brand-new
Volkswagen sedan, a sleek status symbol that proclaims the young
couple's achievements and ambitions as a pair of Internet start-up
employees who are going places.
These are the sort of people whose historical equivalents in 18th-
and 19th-century Europe developed political ambitions to match their
economic status and fueled the rise of democracy.
Mr. Liu laughs at the suggestion that the same thing might happen
in 21st-century China. "Undeniably, the people in power hope the
country will develop and people will have a better life," he says.
"But the bottom line is that the people should not challenge their
power. We have given up hope of changing the government."
Still, Liu and Ms. Xu are thankful for the enormous differences
between their lives and those of their parents: Liu's dad was a
truck driver, Xu's was an electrician, and both were assigned their
jobs by the government. "My parents earned just enough to feed the
family, and they thought only about how to support us, not about
making a better life or improving themselves," says Xu. "Our
generation has the opportunity to do that."
She is now a product development manager at Alibaba.com, China's
biggest online trading site, and her husband is a software engineer
at another Chinese Internet success story, Kaixin001, a Facebook-
style site. Unlike their parents, says Liu, "I can either stay with
this company or find a job at another one. I am totally free to do
Those jobs earn the couple about $30,000 a year between them -
not much by Western standards, but twice the average salary in
Beijing and five times the national average in China. Recently they
went on their first holiday abroad - a trip to Singapore organized
by Liu's employer - but most of their spare money goes to car
payments, and they do not indulge in luxuries like fancy clothes,
preferring jeans and T-shirts, which allows them to save a little
each month. …