Tea Leaf Nation

China's New Class Hierarchy: A Guide

Communist? Hardly. Here's how to know if you're a titan or a nobody in the People's Republic.

HONG KONG — Class is a sensitive word in China. Marxist-Leninist rhetoric like "class enemies," "class conflict," and "class struggle" are rarely seen in the country's media these days, but since China began its market reforms in 1979, stratification has emerged in a society that had hitherto tried to eradicate the very concept. After 35 years of breakneck-speed development, social class has become increasingly entrenched, opportunities for upward mobility increasingly limited.

But don't take our word for it. On the Chinese web, a popular (anonymous) post currently making the rounds offers a revealing dissection of China's current class structure, dividing society into nine tiers, describing the first three tiers as the "ruling class" and the bottom three as the "underclass." The division is based on political power and connection as much as wealth and prestige, reflecting the fact that the ruling Communist Party plays an extraordinarily large role in the distribution of social goods in China.

Chinese authorities might blanche at the revival of words like "ruling class," but numbers back it up. In a 2013 report, the consulting firm McKinsey categorized 3 percent of the total 256 million urban Chinese households as affluent with an annual disposable income of more than $34,000, 14 percent as upper middle class with an annual disposable income between $16,000 and $34,000, and 54 percent as mass middle class with an annual disposable income between $9,000 and $16,000. The rest were defined as poor. Foreign Policy translates the post, in part.

Tier 1: The Head Honchos  


Who they are: Current members of the Communist Party Politburo, which oversees the ruling party; certain retired members of the Standing Committee, the highly selective sub-committee of the Politburo that essentially runs China.

Tier 1 has the power to set agenda and make decisions regarding national and international policy. The Politburo has 25 members, including seven standing committee members. A handful of retired standing committee members are also usually assumed to wield power from behind the scenes. There are probably about 30 people in China who can be considered a member of this elusive class.

Tier 2: The Bigwigs  

Who they are: Ministers and provincial-level heads with substantive power; retired Politburo members; certain politically-connected business magnates, tycoons and bankers (property magnate Li Ka-shing is pictured above). There are probably about 200 people in China who can be considered Tier 2. Members of Tier 2 have direct influence on national policymaking.

Tier 3: The Powerbrokers

Who they are: Ministers and provincial-level heads with less power; owners of top companies like Tencent or Alibaba (the latter's founder, Jack Ma, is pictured above); regional magnates and very wealthy businesspeople; chancellors of elite universities.  There are probably about 4,000 to 5,000 people who can be considered Tier 3. Members of Tier 3 exert some influence over the development of certain regions or industries.

Tier 4: The Privileged


Who they are: Municipal or county-level party heads; prominent university professors; owners of medium- to large-sized companies; top managers at large corporations; well-known doctors and lawyers; famous writers and celebrities (like Fan Bingbing, pictured above). There are probably 5 million to 10 million people who can be considered Tier 4. Those in Tier 4 have ties to the ruling class (as do those further up the chain).

Tier 5: The Very Comfortable

Who they are: Mid-level party cadres with power over certain pockets of local policy; successful small- to medium-sized business owners; university professors; mid-managers of large corporations; owners of multiple real property in large cities; reputable doctors, lawyers, and engineers. There are probably 100 million people who can be considered Tier 5. Members of Tier 5 have control over their careers.

Tier 6: The Squeezed


Who they are: Ordinary civil servants; white-collar workers; ordinary doctors, lawyers, and engineers; modestly successful small business owners. There are probably 200 million to 300 million people who can be consider Tier 6. Those in Tier 6 have social mobility to ascend to Tier 5 or even to Tier 4.

Tier 7: The Marginalized

Who they are: Ordinary factory workers; owners of mom and pop shops; urban residents with odd jobs; wealthy peasants. There are probably 500 million people who can be considered Tier 7. Those in Tier 7 have the means to subsist in medium to large Chinese cities.

Tier 8: The Underclass

Who they are: Migrant workers in sweatshops; ordinary peasants. There are probably 400 million who can be considered Tier 8. Those in Tier 8 can eke out a living on their own.

Tier 9: The Destitute

Who they are: Long-term unemployed urban residents; impoverished peasants in far-flung rural areas. There are probably 100 million people who can be considered members of Tier 9.

Photos: Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Look Who's Walking: Chinese Birth Tourism Goes Stateside

And efforts to discourage it aren't working.

HONG KONG — On April 21, state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) ran a lengthy segment on the phenomenon of birth tourism. The numbers are staggering: According to a study cited by the report, in 2008, approximately 4,200 Chinese women gave birth in the United States as tourists, but that figure had surged to over 10,000 by 2012.

The number is likely even higher in 2013 and 2014 after Hong Kong, a former popular destination for birth tourism, significantly restricted the practice, and a romantic comedy called Finding Mr. Right, about a young Chinese mother giving birth in Seattle, became one of the biggest hits in Chinese theaters in 2013. In the recent segment, CCTV performed an unscientific survey on the streets of Beijing, which revealed that 80 percent of respondents know or had heard of people who have gone abroad to give birth recently, while 30 percent said they have considered or will consider giving birth in a foreign land. 

CCTV tried to cast birth tourism in a negative light: a fad that comes with "hidden risks and endless troubles." The network  interviewed a family, surnamed Guo, who had lived in the United States for 10 years before recently returning to China for work. The family's two U.S.-born children lack Chinese hukou, or residential registration, and had trouble gaining acceptance to local public schools in Beijing as a result. (The Guos are now paying over $40,000 a year to send the children to international schools.) Potential cultural clashes between the children and the parents also feature in the segment. Another woman surnamed Xing described how her American-born teenage children, Mike and Michelle, who returned to China with their parents after attending U.S. elementary school, have become "bananas," a disparaging term for Asian-Americans considered "yellow on the outside and white on the inside." 

The network's segment, however, through interviews with birth tourism agencies and parents, also gave voice to the reasons underlying the choice to travel across the globe to give birth, like "superior education resources," "clean environment," "visa-free entry to 183 countries," and the "ability to apply for green cards for the whole family after they are 21." (The agencies seem to have exaggerated the number of countries that grant visa-free entry to U.S. citizens).

Avoiding China's hyper-competitive school system also rates among top concerns. The education culture in China is to "cram, cram, and cram some more," said mother Guo, "but we don't have any concerns like that because it is more important to us to give our children a choice and do what they love." There is nascent evidence of a backlash at home, with some local governments in China experimenting with so-called appreciation education. But a harsher, learn-and-churn model remains prevalent.

As an added inducement, the CCTV report implied that many Chinese parents manage to eat their cake and have it too. Many can obtain a hukou for their U.S.-born babies, assuming they don't run afoul of China's one-child policy.  This constitutes a bit of a legal gray area because China does not recognize dual citizenship, but in practice, a hukou entitles the child to partake in local education and healthcare without losing that U.S. passport. The parents who wish to have a second child stateside to circumvent the one-child policy also have to pay a fine at home, according to the expert interviewed in the report. But it is unclear how often the fine is enforced against U.S.-born children.  

Speaking louder than CCTV's cautionary words about birth tourism may be the covert actions of the network's own employees. Investigative journalist Chai Jing and anchor Dong Qing, both well-known to millions of Chinese, are rumored to have given birth in the United States in recent months. (Neither woman has confirmed or denied these reports.) Chai has cultivated the public persona of an intelligent and sensitive reporter who cares deeply about China's social problems and underclass. Dong, on the other hand, is best recognized as the glamorous, perfectly-coiffed host of CCTV's Chinese New Year Gala, an annual variety show watched by an estimated 700 million people. By all indications, Chai and Dong work inside the system and have intimate knowledge of how the Chinese government and its state-owned enterprises operate. Their choice to give birth elsewhere is indicative of what they think about China's future, and more persuasive to the general public than what they say on air.

It's hardly surprising that a cottage industry has sprung up around this phenomenon. A search for "giving birth in the U.S." on Weibo, China's popular microblogging platform, yielded more than 3 million results and dozens of users holding themselves out as agents who can assist with the process of giving birth stateside (for a fee, of course). Most posts from these agents give a range of advice from visa interview preparation to prenatal care, along with photos of plush maternity hotels in large houses. They do not mention that these maternity hotels, mostly located in U.S. cities with large Chinese communities like Los Angeles and Seattle, are unlicensed and violate local zoning codes. The agents quote packages ranging from $16,000 to $50,000. "$16,000 can't get you a large house or a nice car," claimed an agent named American Baby Home, "but it can get you a baby with U.S. citizenship."  

While birth tourism is certainly controversial in the United States, it is not illegal, and women from all over the world have taken advantage of the practice. One commentator has argued that it would be beneficial to the U.S. economy over the long term, as it tends to attract wealthy immigrants along with their investment and talent. This type of positive thinking may have to prevail until the interpretation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution -- which grants birthright citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil -- changes. That is unlikely to happen any time soon.

AFP/Getty Images