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How Much Do You Need to Earn in China in Order to be Rich?

By Zhu Chong (朱冲)
Lifestyle, page 53
Issue No. 561, Mar 19, 2012
Translated by Li Meng
Original Articles:

How much money do you need to make per month these days in order to lead a comfortable life in one of China's big cities?

Is 10,000 yuan enough?

A few decades ago, the average monthly income for a family was only several dozen yuan, so any household with annual income exceeding 10,000 yuan was, by any measure of the word, rich. However, these days, individuals making 10,000 yuan a month are starting to realize that it might not be enough to afford a satisfying standard of living in China's larger urban centers, let alone to be considered affluent.

No wonder the well-known CCTV host Cui Yongyuan (崔永元) recently complained that his 8,000-yuan-a-month wage wasn't quite making ends meet. This may sound incomprehensible for the "older generation" who believed that 1,000 yuan should be quite enough for one month's spending.

A few common traits can be identified among the section of the community who are pulling in a monthly income of 10,000 yuan and who are often labeled as China's "white collar" or "middle class."

They are certainly not likely to be new entrants to the work force but rather experienced employees who have worked their way up the career ladder. They can afford to own their own homes, but they will also have (second-generation rich aside) a sizable mortgage that they're in the process of paying down. In order to pay off their homes, these people will be paying as much as four thousand yuan - almost half of their hard-earned salary - to the bank every month.

Furthermore, the residential compounds where this kind of person tends to buy property are also likely to have relatively higher property management fees (no less than 3 yuan per square meter) and utility bills can be more expensive too, as these compounds often use more "environmentally friendly" but more expensive heating systems.

Other high wage earners who missed the last chance to get into the property market last time prices fell in 2009 are generally younger. Even though they're forced to rent, they would rather spend 3,000 yuan a month on rent than either live somewhere far away from bustling downtown areas of the city or share accommodation with roommates.

Part of this reluctance to live closer to the center of town is the fact that living in the suburbs would mean enduring the constant battle of pushing and squeezing on to the bus or subway carriage for the long commute to work.

Currently an internationally popular way to define the urban middle class is to measure your monthly pay against the average price per square meter of local housing.

Only those with salary no lower than the housing price can be categorized as "white collar" or "middle class". According to this standard, these "10,000 yuan a month" wage earners are falling well short of the measure.

Most of the people who happened to buy houses before 2007, when average housing price in large cities was merely 5,000 yuan per square meter, were born before the '80s. People of this generation only had to put down a 40,000 yuan deposit and their mortgage payments were normally limited to 1,000-2,000 yuan a month.

Members of the "post-'80s" generation on the other hand have been confronted with the dismal prospect of one square meter of residential housing costing as much as two to four times the local average monthly income. A "white collar" in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen or Hangzhou can earn between 5,000 to 10,000 yuan a month on average, while the median home prices in these cities are more than twenty thousand yuan per square meter.

For white collars workers in other provincial capitals and third-tier cities, a square meter of residential housing is more than twice their monthly paycheck.

The huge gap between the average salary of these workers and the cost of an apartment leaves many feeling that they'll never be able to afford a house.

For those who are even younger, it is even harder to hold out hopes that one day they would be able to get a home to call their own - unless, you happened to have been blessed with wealthy or powerful parents.

Aside from owning your own home, you need a car if you're serious about finding a girlfriend or boyfriend in the big city.

Given that fuel prices continue to rise, a car is going to set you back another 1,000 yuan a month on fuel costs alone, not to mention the additional 30 to 50 yuan you'll need to spend on parking every day.

Some people even go farther and take another loan in order to purchase a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, which results in an additional two or three thousand yuan in payments to the bank each month.

Even if they haven't planned on buying a car as yet, these people are still reluctant to commute on public transport, fearing their expensive suits and handbags might be mistaken as quality knockoffs.

So it wouldn't be at all surprising for them to spend 100 yuan a day on taxis that help them navigate the clogged streets of China's mega-cities.

In addition to all that mentioned above, we haven't taken into account the hefty phone bills, the cost of clothing and various other expenses.

These "white collars" usually prefer to go to supermarkets to buy cling-wrapped vegetables rather than frequent a regular market, although it has become just as hard to find bargains in any of the farmer's market these days.

But there seems to be nothing wrong with not being an economical shopper. As food scandals in China only get worse, supermarket food at least appears to be a bit safer.

Then they are left with no choice but to accept the sticker prices in supermarkets - ten yuan for two sweet peppers, 15 yuan for three tomatoes and 30 yuan for half a kilo of chicken wings ... and you can't complain about being ripped off, given the fact that a meal for two at KFC or McDonald's would set you back around eighty yuan.

Do your own math and see how many more deductions you could make from the ten thousand yuan paycheck?

At a time when the average monthly salary was only eighty yuan a month, those "ten-thousand-yuan" households were unquestionably rich and genuinely able to live a comfortable life, the same can't be said for those who are currently earning 10,000 a month.


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