Hai Ren, The Middle Class in Neoliberal China: Governing Risk, Life-Building, and Themed Spaces

London, New York, Routledge, 2013, xvi & 192 pp.

Review by Martin Minost


The Chinese middle classes – and the question of their definition – are a recurring subject of research. In recent years, many sociologists and anthropologists from all over the world have tackled this thorny question. These include, among others, Jean-Louis Rocca, to whom we owe translations of work on the subject by well-known Chinese scholars such as Li Chunling and Zhou Xiaohong,[1] as well as recent work by David Goodman.[2]

However, Professor Ren’s book, published in 2013, offers an analytical perspective that is radically different from that of most existing work on the subject. The author does not seek to define and mark off the middle class by means of more or less arbitrary statistical categories, or through qualitative criteria such as consumption patterns, sense of belonging, and other lifestyle analyses.

Basing himself on the concept of the “device” (dispositif) developed by Michel Foucault – which is to say the complex of means, discourses, practices, techniques, and institutions used by a government for the purposes of control – the author analyses the “middle class” as a strategy of the Chinese state to promote a harmonious “middle class society,” and to manage, educate, and control the Chinese population. To analyse this soft control, the anthropologist has carried out much field research, mainly in the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park in Beijing, in order to observe how an institution serving the state inculcates individuals with models of behaviour that correspond to the image of a middle class put forward by that state.

In order to demonstrate his point, Ren’s book follows a simple and effective scheme. In his introduction, the author begins by defining Chinese society as a risk society in Ulrich Beck’s meaning of the term, and refers back to several theories of social class that precede his own perspective. He then introduces the relevance of Michel Foucault’s theory in analysing neoliberal forms of self-construction of individuals (“subjectification”) in a risk society.

The first chapter is a presentation of the evolution of the Chinese state and its necessary changes in the face of upheavals linked both to the handover of Hong Kong and to the economic liberalisation of China. Indeed, since the composition of China’s population has changed, the discourse of the state has also had to evolve in order to better represent this population politically. The author reviews the adaptations that the state has had to make in its discourse in order to integrate the new social classes, which were reviled during the Maoist era.

The next two chapters focus on the liberalisation in the field of culture through two institutions: ethnic museums and television. Initially totally controlled by the state, these two institutions, according to Ren, have been opened up to private management but continue to serve state ideology by presentation and programming that is closely monitored by CCP members. This “neoliberalisation” of institutions, nonetheless subject to strong state authority, has made it possible, according to the author, to mix consumer society with the education of the population through the field of entertainment and presentation, which he calls “imagineering,” a term that could be defined as image engineering aimed at controlling the consumption patterns of individuals.

Chapter Four provides a more detailed analysis of the process of management and manipulation of individuals, on the basis of surveys conducted in the built environment of the Ethnic Park. Indeed, the park area is designed so that, through the presentation in space (“theming”) and time of the culture of the various ethnic minorities, clients are placed in behavioural situations that are specific to a middle class (kinds of consumption, secure spaces, etc.). As Ren sees them, the norms and rules of the park shape consumers in order to make them into middle-class subjects.

The last two chapters, one on consumer photography practices and one on the backgrounds and social situations, whether precarious or not, of some individuals, serve to demonstrate that all members of society are affected by the discourse and techniques implemented by the state and cultural enterprises, and all of them are constructed in relation to the middle class model being promoted.

Thus, Ren’s perspective is very interesting. Although it is not a question of defining the criteria that make it possible to rank individuals among the middle class, one finds in his analysis factors usually put forward in the study of the middle classes: capitalist modes of consumption, the commodification of image and culture, and the analogy between the park and the secure area of ​​gated communities that allows the author to classify the PRC among neoliberal societies. But the new perspective remains an analysis of the middle class as a manipulative image and a discourse that facilitates the stability of the social order. From this point of view, the middle class no longer includes only certain members of society who are eligible because of possessing certain criteria, but affects and influences the entire population. Although the author does not use the term, there is a renewed avenue of research for the study of aspirations and their impact on social relations between individuals.

However, Ren’s demonstration is not always entirely convincing, especially in its lack of comparison with other situations of everyday life, that is to say, ones less “extraordinary” than a visit to the Ethnic Culture Park. Indeed, the objective set out by the anthropologist was to demonstrate that Chinese society is guided in all circumstances towards a new state ideological model, even by cultural enterprises released from state management, and is therefore potentially depoliticised. However, the focussing of his investigation on the Ethnic Park and museums necessarily distorts the results, because debates and political intentions cannot be absent from the issue of minority nationalities, which directly affect the unity of the country. What about situations in everyday life where the political is effectively absent?

In addition, there is sometimes a certain naivety on the part of the author in the face of consumers’ willingness to integrate with the norms and regulations of the park when they are reprimanded by the guards for inappropriate behaviour. What happens once they come back out of the park enclosure? Ren seems to forget the ability of individuals, whether or not they are Chinese, to ignore the rules. Also, it seems to me that the anthropologist puts too much emphasis on the overdetermination of the control model he perceives, and places too much confidence in its effectiveness. It would have been necessary to follow these consumers at greater length outside of the extraordinary situation of the park in order to observe and prove the real embedding of a model.

Translated by Michael Black.

Martin Minost is a PhD candidate in social anthropology and ethnology at EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences), Paris, affiliated with the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary China (CECMC – UMR 8173) (martin.minost@gmail.com).

[1] Jean-Louis Rocca (ed.), La Société chinoise vue par ses sociologues. Migrations, villes, classes moyennes, drogue, sida (Chinese Society as Seen by its Sociologists: Migration, Cities, Middle Classes, Drugs and AIDS), Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2008, 319 pp. (see Chapters 1, 4 and 5).

[2] David S.G. Goodman & Minglu Chen (eds), Middle Class China: Identity and Behaviour, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd., 2013, 204 pp.; David S.G. Goodman, Class in Contemporary China, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2014, 233 pp.

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