Kuora: The ‘average’ Chinese person

The “average Chinese” has never played in a rock band or been a Quora Top Writer five years running. Still, Kaiser knows a thing or two about the subject. This week, we look back at a Quora question that he originally answered on November 11, 2015:

What is life like for an average Chinese person in modern China?

It’s not easy to decide who our “average Chinese person” actually is, but let’s take a stab.

  • The population of the country skews male, and more so than most human populations, so maybe we can go with that; and we can get an average age, I suppose, which is about 35.
  • He’s certainly Han by ethnicity, since over 90 percent of the country is.
  • He has a high school education and perhaps some post-secondary vocational training.
  • He’s married, as are most 35-year-olds, and has one child. Most of the guys his age he knows got married for the first time 10 years ago; most of the women were only 23 when they got married. Of his 10 good guy friends who got married, two are already divorced.
  • He made about $7,600 last year, but income inequality is very serious in China (a Gini coefficient of about 60), so likely he took home considerably less than $7,600. He saves about 28 percent of his income.
  • Despite his limited income, he owns a modest home — the home ownership rate in China is surprisingly high, at 85 percent. But he doesn’t own a car. Car ownership is still only 113 per 1,000 people, or 103rd on a ranking of 190 countries and regions. [Kaiser: It’s now 154 per 1,000 and ranks 73rd – but he still doesn’t own a car.] He gets around on public transportation, taking a cab occasionally, and biking sometimes.
  • He probably lives in a southern province — but do we determine our average by the center of populational gravity? By largest province by population? Some other means? By the center of gravity, he probably lives in Hubei or Anhui; by largest provincial population, he lives in Guangdong, with over 104 million people.
  • To further complicate things, China is just about evenly divided between rural and urban; we’ll make him kind of both — one of the hundreds of millions of migrants who have left the countryside to work in the city.
  • China’s just about evenly divided, too, by internet-connected and not (China’s internet penetration is 50 percent), and there’s 55–45 statistical probability that he owns a smartphone. Let’s make him an internet user (which is likely at his age group) and a smartphone owner. Chances are he uses an Android, made by a local manufacturer like Xiaomi or Huawei.
  • He doesn’t smoke, but half of his guy friends smoke. China’s male adult smoking rate is 49 percent.

Life for this guy, almost irrespective of where he is, has been constant change. Nothing is as it was when he was young — not in the city where he lives now, not in the countryside where, let’s assume, he came from originally.

For the most part, material life has improved. He has much better access than his parents did to public services: He can take for granted reliable electricity and running water (not potable, but not likely to give you dysentery if you brush your teeth with it, either).

His income may be low by developed world standards, but someone roughly in his station back when he was in diapers made only about one-eighth of what he does, even adjusted for inflation.

The availability of goods is astonishing, and the sheer variety has multiplied manifold in just the time he’s been on his own buying groceries for himself and later his family. Things are no longer “in season” or not: There’s some fluctuation in price, but he can buy the vegetables he wants year-round. He eats probably five or six times the amount of meat — mainly pork — that his parents did at his age. His caloric intake is ample, and if anything, he is too pudgy and needs to watch what he eats.

While his parents back in the village never locked their doors, knew all their neighbors (too well!), and generally trusted one another — at least after the nuttiness and general paranoia of the Cultural Revolution was over — nowadays, living in the city, he feels quite a bit of urban anomie. He knows none of his neighbors enough to borrow a cup of flour. He feels generally high levels of mistrust about the intentions of those around him, and he believes that most people are on the make and have some kind of angle.

He works very hard: long hours, in a competitive environment, where everyone’s jockeying to get ahead. Life is mainly about work, it seems to him, and economic issues — paying the mortgage and the bills, saving up for a car, saving to send the kid to a good school, figuring out where to put the savings — occupy his mind.

He wouldn’t describe himself as religious, but he sure does manifest a lot of superstitious tendencies. He has friends who call themselves Christians, or Buddhists, but he doesn’t really devote much time to thinking about spiritual matters. Nor, for that matter, does he think about politics much. He doesn’t believe in Marxism-Leninism, but he’s proud to be Chinese and thinks that the Party leadership is basically doing the right thing: making the country strong, standing up to would-be bullies (he’s largely oblivious to any bullying that the Party leadership itself may be guilty of, regionally), cracking down on corruption and cronyism, ensuring social stability and economic growth. He’s dimly aware that the internet is censored, and while some of his friends who went to college are always going on about that, it doesn’t really affect him. And besides, he’s inured to the idea that the news is mostly propagandistic bullshit anyway, and hey, at least there’s social media where he can get access to what’s “really” happening.

In his leisure time, nothing’s better than eating out, and this he does more often than his counterparts in other comparably well-off countries. He also enjoys an evening at the local KTV — a karaoke parlor, where his friends get together to croon Cantopop ballads. He doesn’t have any real hobbies: no collections, no strong interest in music or in art. Popular entertainments are about all he wants — not intellectually challenging art. He’s unfamiliar with classical music, with jazz, with most Western music outside of Top 40; and his taste in TV runs to soap-opera-like dramas and goofy reality TV shows, mostly Chinese or from Taiwan or Hong Kong, and occasionally from Korea.

For leisure at home, he has a 2 mbps ADSL connection and goes online with a DIY PC clone he picked up cheap at a local computer mall. He watches lots of online video and he plays a lot of MMORPGs. He occasionally posts on a local BBS. On his commute, and in bed at home, he’s on that low-end Android we decided he uses. He has a 3G connection but is very parsimonious with data use. He shops online and finds a huge range of goods available through e-commerce sites. He uses Weixin (WeChat) to connect with friends and occasionally posts funny things his kid did, or pictures of particularly nice-looking dishes he ate, to his Weixin “Moments” (like Facebook’s News Feed). He searches on Baidu, shops on Taobao/Tmall, and gets discounts on movie tickets and meals at restaurants from Meituan and Nuomi.

On his bookshelves at home, there isn’t much by way of literature: some best sellers based on internet novels, some genre fiction about grave robbers and ghosts, a couple of self-help titles, mostly variants on “moving” and “cheese,” and some military affairs magazines with lots of gratuitous photos of new model assault rifles.

He’s never traveled abroad and doesn’t have a passport. He had a smattering of English in school, but his teacher’s English wasn’t particularly good, either, and none of it stuck. It’s hard enough for him to speak decent putonghua, or Mandarinwithout his provincial upbringing being too obvious.

In general, he’s quite optimistic. After all, he’s only really known life to trend better year over year. But there’s a fragility to that optimism, and it’s not clear that it would survive a sudden economic reversal. Maybe his faith in the benevolence of the Party-state would buttress his optimism to some extent; maybe appeals to nationalism would give it a little more life beyond the kind of performance-based assessment that now subconsciously informs his views on the government and its culpability or credit for the way things go. That’s the great unknown. The rubber may very well meet the road soon, though, as economic growth slows and some of the shine comes off of the perception that the state has been very competent at delivering services. How our “average Chinese person” responds then will be very interesting.

[Editor: And how do you think he will respond?] [Kaiser: The can’s been kicked down the road a ways still, things are looking reasonably good still, and the appeals to his pride and patriotism are, if anything, more effective than they were two years ago when I wrote this.]

Kuora is a weekly column. Kaiser is, in many ways, a very average American: two kids, two cars, a dog, and 25 pounds he’d like to drop.