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Web Exclusive | Middle class consumption patterns in India and China

Web Exclusive | Middle class consumption patterns in India and China
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First Published: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 11 43 AM IST

Christophe Jaffrelot
Christophe Jaffrelot
Updated: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 11 43 AM IST
New Delhi: Much newsprint has been devoted to the lessons India can draw from China. Unravelling the mystique of a nation that has continued to create new benchmarks in manufacturing, infrastructure, exports and a transformed socio-economic milieu, it continues to fascinate.
Christophe Jaffrelot
High levels of disposable income, opening up of the economies and a heightened state of awareness in both countries has translated in a surge in spending patterns of a middle class that was suddenly flush with funds, from high paying jobs and successful entrepreneurial returns. Wooing international brands, aspiring for a better life and allowing the media to influence buying and lifestyle choices underpinned the ‘growth’ curve of both India and China.
If Chinese art patrons are today seen as amongst the most active on the international art investment/ auction scene or if the surging popularity of the ‘Indian corporate hospital’ amongst the general population is a reality, much of the credit goes to the evolving nature of a swelling middle class that comprises the urban landscape of both these nations.
Holding a conference that could establish an understanding on the consumption patterns of the middle class in these two countries was then an apt exercise undertaken by research organizations in Netherlands, France, China and India.
The 13 presentations at the event have been edited along with an impressive introduction by Christophe Jaffrelot, Director of CERI (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales) at Sciences Po (Paris), and research director at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) and the end result is a useful compendium not just for those interested in doing business with China and India but also curious bystanders witnessing the sweeping winds of change that are redefining the landscape of these two nations.
The introduction by Christophe provides the perfect context to the book. He starts by saying, “the middle class is a notoriously elusive social category. It is defined, almost by default, as ‘what-is-in-the-middle’, between the upper layers of society and the plebian masses.” He goes on to trace the emergence of the bourgeoisie in Great Britain confirming that “the middle class is a phenomenon of the capitalist era”. Where China and India are concerned, his premise is that all the caveats for using the concept of the ‘middle class’ in India were applicable to China as well. Traders and middlemen who occupied positions within the emerging economy of industry and foreign trade remained dependent on the bureacratic complex that led their modernization efforts.
The book analyses the specificity of today’s middle class in India and China and to what extent it follows a similar rotate in both countries and to what extent its really new. The first set of presentations in the book constitute an interdisciplinary reflection on the reliance of traditional sociological notions on which definitions of the middle cass were based so far in India and China. They analyse the intermingling of old notions and mentalities before coming up with some interesting pointers to why and how the middle classes in these two countries are shaping a completely new economic paradigm.
Against the political backdrop of the Indian intelligentsia refraining from casting their vote and distancing themselves from the political leadership that they are going to inherit to the near-obsessive desire to be recognized as global citizens, complete with the trappings of consumerist acquisitions, the book takes you through the gamut of tourism, healthcare, heritage, mass media, art and entertainment in the present day context.
According to Christophe the one thing that India can learn from China is to not rely purely on services alone but to look at the way the latter has industrialized and brought in foreign direct investment. China on the other hand has to see how the Indian intellectual capital is capable of thinking out-of-the-box. He marvels at how the Indian mind is capable of ‘thinking critically’ something the Chinese are taught not to.
He also points out that though both countries are today driven by a supermarket culture and retail boom, the China end is far more sophisticated and ‘in place’. India will take a few years to get anywhere close to that. His understanding of India is bang on, when he says that marketers must keep in mind that there is a huge difference between the new middle class and the elite. Also the status group in India cannot be bracketed together, especially since different caste groups prevail, irrespective of their being in the same revenue/ salaries/ earnings band.
A frequent visitor to India, a visiting faculty on a number of Indian academic institutions, he has his pulse on what makes the Indian mind tick and is categorical when he says that, “the media in India needs to think things through more analytically, rather than follow a herd mentality.” The India shining hoax has to be corrected and the real picture presented for only then will the country bypass its inherent limitations and emerge as a nation to be reckoned with.
And yet, ironically, when asked if there were any findings in the book that came as a surprise to him, he said, “no”. To that extent the book may provide exhaustive inputs and pointers but much like the India growth story that pans out ahead of us, it is predictable, in that - get your act right before you can think of riding the modernization game.
Patterns of Middle Class Consumption in India and China edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Peter van der Veer has been published by Sage Publications; Price Rs695; Pages 300
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First Published: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 11 43 AM IST