Tina Schilbach


The Politics of (Middle-) Class in China’s ‘Economic Centre’: Shanghai and the Making of Chinese Urban Identity



My research is concerned with how class narratives inform the making of Shanghai as China’s business city and cosmopolitan urban showcase. Official discourses of middle class in China are not just concerned with new articulations of material affluence or urban lifestyle change. Rather, the debate has entailed significant political and ethical value judgment, emphasising how the new middle class ought to contribute to the domestic reform direction. As class is being inserted into the new master narrative of “harmonious society”, I want to investigate how class and place interact in the construction of new forms of social consent. On the one hand, the governance of class in China is now being played out on an patchy field of change and continuity, while on the other, the governance of China’s cities is being negotiated within new local power and branding regimes. Shanghai is not just a particular site of controlled urban privilege, an official model of post-Maoist modernity in China. It is also a city in search of its own sustainable comparative advantage, a distinctive local profile, and global acceptance as a re-emerging world metropolis. As the city has regained its vision for the future, it is mobilising an array of policy resources to manage urban identity and to designate claims to urban belonging. However, given the tension and pluralism in Shanghai’s image production, what kind of political discourse is being generated in the city? Is it producing a business-savvy, upwardly-mobile citizenry unconcerned with the vagaries of political emancipation? How successful is Shanghai in the management of its own social coherence? Are there persuasive concepts of class that can be employed by the state to create domestic consensus for dramatic urban reinvention? This research views Shanghai as a political – and not just economic – city. It is enquired whether ideas of a new middle class are employed as a convenient tool for state-centred governance or whether it is a term that furnishes more complicated and less harmonious ideas of urban belonging. Shanghai’s unique metaphorical salience for China’s transformation process makes this city a valuable site for observing the tensions between middle-class urbanity and its representational limits.