MayaMaya KELIYAN[2]




1.                  Introduction: Social-economic changes in China and Bulgaria: similarities and differences


It looks rather strange and even exotic to try to compare Bulgaria and China: at first glance they are totally incomparable. The two nations belong to different geographic regions, cultures, civilizations; they have different traditions and value systems, which have had differing impacts on their respective societies. But a close scrutiny of the social-historical and political development of the two over the last 50 years reveals that the giant East Asian country and the small country of Southeastern Europe have some common points in their historical destiny. For a certain period of time they have had a similar past: after the Second World War, they both developed as communist countries ruled by communist parties; market and democratic institutions were abolished and a plan economy system was imposed. At that time the so-called “socialist industrialization” was implemented, meaning a “communist version of post-war modernization”. The imposed model proved ineffective and during the last decades of the 20th century the Chinese and Bulgarians came up against new historical challenges, each country trying to cope in its own way. In 1978 China declared a course of market-oriented changes and opened its economy, while in 1989 Bulgaria commenced a transition to a democratic and market society. As a result of the long, complicated and painful road covered by the two countries, by the end of 2005 China became the fourth in rank world economic power in terms of its GDP, and the country is keeping its 10% economic growth for 5 years in a row. Bulgaria, after joining NATO in March 2004, since January 1, 2007 has become an European Union member state. Despite these achievements, the two countries must solve complex and urgent social-economic problems. China is conducting reforms in a unique way of its own, building an economy based on market principles but at the same time maintaining the monopoly of the communist party in politics, and developing “socialism with specific Chinese characteristics”. Some of the serious problems confronting Chinese society are: the irregular pace of development in the separate parts of the country - the wealthy Eastern coast and the poor inner regions; the enormous social-economic inequality between the urban and rural regions; the large rate of industrial pollution that is a threat to the ecological balance, etc. Bulgaria has approached its post-communist transformation in exactly the reverse way: at the start the emphasis was on building up democratic institutions. Market reforms, for various reasons, were delayed, and this eventually led to hyperinflation, to a ruined bank system and a collapsed national economy. In order to overcome this disastrous situation, an agreement was made in 1997 with the International Monetary Fund and a currency board arrangement came in force. Thanks to these measures and the market reforms undertaken since then, the most significant changes in the economy were achieved, but only in recent years. Bulgaria is the EU member state with the lowest per capita income; the country has been criticized by the European institutions for its high level of corruption (which is a problem in China as well), for failing to deal with organized crime, and for its inefficient judicial system.

In these circumstances, what is exceptionally important for both countries is the stable presence of the middle strata in the social stratification structure. The importance of these strata for every modern society comes from the fact that the processes observed in these strata can serve as a measure of the speed, direction and success of the social transformations. The development of the middle strata, the changes in their life style are indicators of what is happening in society at large, which is the main reason for this choice of topic and of problems to be discussed in this paper. The objective is to present the middle strata patterns of development in China and Bulgaria in comparative perspectives[3], patterns, which, despite the specific differences, show similarities stemming from the common direction of some of the changes occurring in the two societies. In order to achieve this objective, we must define the criteria of belonging to the middle strata[4], their boundaries and characteristic features; and the notions concerning the middle strata in Chinese and Bulgarian sociology.


2.                  The middle strata as an indicator of success of the reforms in China and Bulgaria


Since 2002 the high governing circles of the Chinese Communist Party declared that the goal of public development was the achievement of xiaokang shehui (a moderately well off society). Тhe notion of xiaokang shehui already existed more than 2500 years ago, and was first developed by Confucius. In its contemporary meaning xiaokang shehui signifies a society in which most people live in prosperity and the middle strata are widely present. In Bulgaria since 1989 the middle class has been given attention in all the electoral programs and promises of nearly all political parties: they declare themselves the defenders of the middle class, whose well-being is the goal of party policy. But the long and painful transition led to the impoverishment of a considerable part of the Bulgarian population and turned the very concept of middle class almost into a social illusion. The common feature of the Chinese and Bulgarian cases is that, as a result of the Chinese reforms and the Bulgarian transformations, a situation came about in which the concept itself of “middle class” acquired some kind of political connotation and turned into a symbol of desired social prosperity. The ruling political elites in both countries look upon the middle class as a guarantee of the stability of the existing political system, but differ in their views on the “political meaning” of the middle class. Whereas in China it is perceived as a condition for the economic prosperity of society and hence for preserving the political status quo, in Bulgaria since 1989 its stability has been viewed above all as a guarantee for the irreversible course of democratic transition, for the stability of the democratic institutions. In the attitude of the ruling elites in Bulgarian with regard to the middle strata, we see a kind of paradox: by “middle class” they mean above all the entrepreneurs, and overlook the administrators, professionals and managers, strata, without which the existence and growth of a modern advanced society would be unthinkable. But regardless of the specific connotations of the middle class in the political vocabulary of the ruling elites in our two societies, the importance of this class for future development is indisputable.

The governing authorities are well aware of the importance of the middle strata for the development of China, for the preservation, maintenance and stimulation of economic growth, for the position of the country in the international community. The strategy of the Communist Party for the development of the middle strata has been defined by some authors as a “social engineering project of the contemporary reformist state and its agencies” (Tomba 2004). Unlike the case of China, where the middle strata developed in the 1990s not so much as a result of the work of market mechanisms, but through the stimulus of the state, in Bulgaria we have observed exactly the opposite course. The Bulgarian middle strata have developed despite the political forces, as if “in spite” of the policies of the parties, and thanks mainly to market mechanisms and to established democratic institutions. What we have in the two countries are two fundamentally opposite types of state policy toward the middle strata.

When studying contemporary Chinese and Bulgarian society, the question arises as to which social strata are in a “winner’s” situation in the transition. The most dramatic and visible changes in post-reform China and post-totalitarian Bulgaria are those in consumption patterns and life style. In social stratification self-identification term people consider themselves in terms of consumption, rather than of their relation to production (Keliyan 2004). The question of consumption is of key importance in contemporary politics, “elections are now fought increasingly over the issue of who can most efficiently manage the economy, in short who can provide the resources to households to buy and in turn ‘deliver the goods’” (Miller 1995: 16). Тhe causes of the collapse of totalitarian socialism, apart from the political ones, are related to the imposed system of consumption patterns a the time, described “as a culture of shortage… of an idealized economic system” (ibid.). The social changes in everyday life usually are described with politically oriented rhetoric, combined with the rhetoric of one’s personal experience of consumption, and that association “can be interpreted as one of the most natural ways of appropriation and/or rejection of the societal changes and the discursive regime in which these changes are enveloped” (Oushakine 2000:101). For example the communist and post-communist societies are associated with the dominant elements of consumption of the time (ibid. 114).

The logical question is whose life style and consumption patterns have undergone the most significant positive changes and the most tangible improvements of standard in China and Bulgaria? The answer that the public is offered by the governing authorities, the academic community and the media in China, is that the middle strata, by their life style, are the symbol of post-reform changes. As for the case of post-communist Bulgaria, it has long since become clear and widely known that, so far, the governing elites are the winners, together with shady circles acting “on the edge of legality” or clearly against the law. Unlike China, in Bulgaria, even after the country’s accession to the European Union, there is still no imposed and suggested public image of the middle strata as the symbol of positive life style changes; they are not perceived as a category undergoing a “consumer boom”. This is due to the heavy economic crisis of the 1990s, which reached a critical point in 1996-1997 - but the process of impoverishment has continued even afterwards. The real income of Bulgarians before the start of the transition proved to have been higher than after. While nominal per-capita income quadrupled between 1987 and 1991, due to galloping inflation, real income dropped by more than a third (Keliyan 2001b: 353). Even as late as 2005, the real income of households, though higher than in the preceding years, had not yet attained the level of 1995; in fact it was equal to 92.3% of the real income per household member in 1995 (Bulgaria 2005: Social-economic Development. 2005: 50). Actual consumption of foods essential for Bulgarian households as well as of most non-food staples has been declining in the first half of the nineties (Keliyan 2001c: 367-368).

These processes determine the extreme dissatisfaction of Bulgarians with their life at the start of the 21st century as compared with the situation in 1970s and early 1980s. According to data from the representative international survey “Democratic Values”, conducted in 11 European post-communist countries, Bulgarians had the highest percentage of respondents “very dissatisfied with their life”. This was the response of nearly 44% of the interviewed persons; next in order are the Rumanians with 31% and the Russians with 12% (Tilkidjiev and Dimov 2003: 34). The higher percentage of dissatisfaction among Bulgarians can be explained by the drastic negative change in living standard. As was previously mentioned, unlike the Chinese case, in Bulgaria the middle strata are not perceived as a symbol of successful transition; but compared with the other social strata, the middle ones indicate higher satisfaction with their present life and are more optimistic about the future. The data of the quoted survey show that one fourth of Bulgarians shares moderately positive and optimistic assessments. The data indicate that the categories ‘highly educated’, ‘younger people’, ‘in middle working age’, and ‘living in larger cities and the capital’, all express moderately positive and optimistic assessments. This is also true for the categories of the intelligentsia, employees, highly qualified workers, and students. Among those dissatisfied by the economic situation were the elderly, who for the most part were pensioners with low pensions, low-skilled workers living in villages and small towns, and the unemployed. Their social-economic status has a definite impact on the cultural pattern of political-economic thinking, stereotypes, assessments, and behavior (Tilkidjiev 2002: 390).

While the middle strata of the rapidly developing megalopolises in the highly industrialized eastern coastal area symbolize the success of the reforms and enjoy a high living standard, the Chinese counterparts of the dissatisfied and pessimistic Bulgarians, i.e. the Chinese pensioners, the low-skilled workers, the residents of small towns and especially of villages, the migrant workers in big city centers, are in a disadvantaged social-economic situation. According to UN criteria and data, the inhabitants of Shanghai have a living standard identical with that of the Portuguese, while in Tibet the standard is at the level of poor African countries (The China Human Development Report 2005). In 2005 the Gini coefficient[5] for China was 0.45, given that the borderline where the range of alarm begins is 0.4, and only 31 of the 131 countries surveyed by UNDP come after China in this respect. For Bulgaria the coefficient for 2005 is approximately 0.31. The cited social-economic inequalities between various status groups has led to the description of the social-stratification of the country as being in the shape of “a reversed letter T”, because of the “irrationally large part” of the lower class in Chinese society (Li Q. 2006 [6]). Such a pictorial representation of the stratification structure is present in the social-class self-identification of contemporary Bulgarians as well. In the surveys conducted in Bulgaria as part of the ISSP Program, Jonathan Kelley’s pictorial approach to class is applied, where, using five figures, the basic five types of social stratification structures are depicted (Tilkidjiev 2002: 300-308). The type designated as A, or the elitist society, with a small elite on tip, very few people in the middle and a large mass of people at the bottom, is precisely the pictorial image of the society in which the respondents of the surveyed post-communist countries, including Bulgaria, feel they are living; in Bulgaria 59 % of the respondents in 1999 indicated this opinion. Only 9% of the surveyed Bulgarians were of the opinion that the society is of the so-called D-type, i.e. a society in which most people are of the middle class[7] (ibid. 305).


3.                  Middle class and the middle strata in Chinese and Bulgarian sociology


The ideological restrictions that existed in the two societies during the communist past left a mark on the orientations of theoretical research in their respective sociological traditions. The concept of “social stratification”, “middle strata”, and “middle class” do not fit into the framework of classical Marxism, where the term used would be “bourgeoisie”. In orthodox Marxist paradigm, researchers remain in the framework of class analysis, where there is no place for a middle class, but reference is made to “intelligentsia” and “the new worker stratum”. According to the accepted class, there are two basic classes in society: workers and peasants, and the intelligentsia, whose analogue in developed societies are the professionals, is reduced to a layer serving workers’ and peasants’ interests.

The social stratification of Bulgarian society was the object of serious research even before 1989, but the obligatory ideological framework at that time set restrictions for social scholars. The long and arduous post-totalitarian transition brought about the impoverishment of considerable strata of Bulgarian society, as a result of which at the start of the 21st century some sociologists, absorbed by the problems of the so-called “culture of poverty”, have even asserted there were no grounds for talking about a middle class at all. Not going into the details of the various views on the matter, we will only note that the debate[8] was led chiefly regarding the criteria of middle class’ objective and subjective identification; about its existence at the time of communism and its presence in the post-totalitarian period.

1.                  Up till a few years ago some sociologists, as well as a large part of the public and the media, assumed that the middle class is a reality in the developed societies, while in the post-communist ones it is only a desirable illusion and part of the rhetoric of political parties in their electoral campaigns. The post-communist societies, especially the poorer ones such as the Bulgarian, do not create the needed social-economic conditions for the growth and stability of a middle class, especially in terms of market relations, level of income and consumption, life style and prestige. In these societies there is no middle class, but a highly polarized society, divided into the elite and the poor.

According to another view similar to the first, the middle class exists only in developed societies, and in Eastern Europe as well, but only in a small proportion. The middle class is usually defined according to economic criteria (in terms of property, position on the market, level of income and consumption) and according to political criteria connected with the right of political choice and freedoms.

2.                  The middle class is connected with private ownership, middle and large business, specific life style, political views and behavior, similar to those in developed societies. Entrepreneurs, business people, and the self-employed are considered to be typical representatives of the class. The non-entrepreneurial strata of the old middle class and the various strata of the new middle class remain outside the attention of the proponents of this view. They hold that under socialism there is no middle class, for by its very nature this society is political: the means of production are owned by the state; private property, economic self-initiative, personal and political freedoms do not exist; power positions are determined according to the political affiliation and loyalty to the communist party.

3.                  According to the proponents of the third view, to which we assign our own views, the middle class is defined on the basis of an aggregate of criteria (Tilkidjiev 2002). They include not only ownership of the means of production, income and assets, but also the type of employment, the work situation, profession, occupation, education, prestige, power resources, cultural status, life style, consumption patterns, values system, political views and behavior, etc. The middle class holds an intermediate place in the stratification ladder, in the so-called ”stratification middle”, and it exists under socialism as well as in post-communist societies. The notion of “middle class” is incompatible with Marx’s class dichotomy, but is close to Weber’s understanding of “status groups”. I share the view, recently popular, especially among British sociologists (Goldthorpe, 1982; Savage at all., 1992; Butler & Savage, 1995) and by Bulgarian sociologist Tilkidjiev, N (2002), that due to the heterogeneous nature of this class, it would be more appropriate to speak, not of a single middle class, but of middle classes in the plural, or more precisely of middle strata. The middle strata are an “explanatory mechanism for the processes and changes in contemporary societies” (Tilkidjiev 2002: 20).

Unlike Bulgarian scholars our Chinese colleagues have no doubts about the existence of the middle class in post-reform Chinese society, and the debates regarding it concern the criteria for defining the boundaries of this class.

Among the numerous definitions of the middle class, many are based on the income criterion, which varies in a rather wide range. Since Bourdieu (1984), it has been generally accepted that equal income does not mean similar consumption, but to the contrary, it is especially important to consider the impact of “tastes” on the life style, which are a significant component for defining social-status differentiation.

A number of authors connect the consumption patterns of the middle strata with the issue of stability of economic development, and they caution that the decreased “consumption capacity among the traditional white collar middle strata” is a risk to the stability of economic growth (Li, Q. 2001). The social status of the middle strata is defined outside the traditional relationships at the work place. It is considered that consumption has an increasingly large impact on social relationships, because the social nature of urban dwellers is changing from danwei (work-unit) individuals to shehui (social) individuals or shequ ren (community individuals). These processes are a result of increased purchasing power of urban public-sector employees.

A growing number of authors use the income criterion and consumption patterns in combination with indicators for occupation and education. The excessively vague boundaries of income, in which representatives of the middle class fall according to the numerous definitions, are unclear and too imprecise for fixing the stratum boundaries. The level of income assumed as indicator of middle class affiliation has been criticized for being too high, because groups with such income, especially in a country like China, are an economic elite, not middle class (Johnston 2004: 608). It is assumed that the middle class is a group with shared interests regarding the issues of consumption, leisure time, material goods, education and information, as well as the desire for legal predictability (Robison and Goodman 1996).

The media are suggesting to their audiences an image of the middle class as consisting mostly of young people in their early 30s; with a higher education, professionals with good jobs in the public sector; with high incomes and money to spend; with consumption patterns that display prosperity; with security regarding the future, with good pension and health insurance. Research teem at the CASS (Lu 2002: 252-253) define six important criteria for middle class identification: 1) type of work - intellectual labor in a safe and clean environment; 2) rights and duties at the workplace, including responsibilities, the right to speak up, make suggestions and exercise some form of control; 3) income, including all perquisites, patrimonial assets and other benefits directly or indirectly deriving from employment (25 000-30 000 RMB a year per person) despite the fact that average incomes are much lower even in the most affluent urban areas); 4) skills, especially education higher than high school, training and experience; 5) lifestyle and consumption habits; 6) moral and civic consciousness.

The other research team at the CASS engaged in a study called “Structural Changes of Contemporary Chinese Society” outlined four criteria to assess whether one belongs to the middle class: professional status; income; patterns of lifestyle and consumption; and self-identification (Li, C. 2004). First, about 16% of those surveyed can be categorized as “middle class by profession” (zhiye zhongchan). Five professions: party and political officials, business managerial class, private entrepreneurs, technical skilled labor, and office workers, are labeled “white collar” professions. Secondly, about 25% are defined as “middle class by income”. There is no standard mean for all the regions surveyed, because the income gaps are huge between different places therefore the “mean” was calculated on regional basis. Thirdly, 35% of those surveyed are considered “the middle class by standards of consumption and lifestyle”. With some exceptions seen among the middle-aged and young people in metropolises, “so-called middle class culture has not appeared in China” (ibid.). Since a specific standard of “cultural” consumption was absent, the researchers developed an elaborate point system for measuring each household’s capacity for consuming medium-range and high-end luxury goods. The “consumer middle class” (xiaofei zhongchan) resulted from the calibration and comparison of the total scores earned by each household. The last category, “subjective cognition,” yields the largest percentage: as many as 47% of those surveyed considered themselves members of the “middle class.” However, if the four criteria are combined to arrive at a comprehensive index for the middle class, then the percentage of Chinese middle class dropped to about 7%. Even in big cities, the percentage is as low as 12% (Li, C. 2004).


Table 1: Composition of a Chinese urban middle class

(Source: Li, C. 2004)


Government officials


Business managers


Private business owners


Employees of government agencies







The disparity between the criteria chosen by various authors for defining middle strata boundaries stems from the fact that these strata are quite heterogeneous and they include structural elements with an “intermediate status” (Tilkidjiev 2002: 204). Some people, such as highly qualified professionals, administrators and managers, are situated in the upper range and are close to the elite, which is why they have been called the “new privileged class”. Others, such as skilled manual workers and technicians, supervisors of workers, routine non-manual employees, are in the lower ranges, close to the working class.

The “distance from the political, economic and cultural centers” and the differences between urban and rural areas “play a more important part in social stratification on the mainland China than in other countries” (Li, Q. 2002:116). In Bulgaria, despite the unevenness of development in separate areas, there is no such drastic distinction between regions that would lead to a strong localization of the middle strata, yet the latter are generally concentrated in the large cities and are present to a much lesser degree in the small cities and villages. In both countries, but to various degrees, can be observed the above-mentioned “two cultural models” of social-group behavior (Tilkidjiev 2002: 389). The category of people exemplifying the first pattern are the middle strata; they are better educated, more enterprising and willing to take initiatives, they share post-materialistic values and a modern life style. The groups embodying the second model are the less educated strata, those with lower income, who usually live in smaller settlements and in rural areas.

As a result of analysis of different views in Chinese and Bulgarian sociology regarding the specific features of the middle strata, the following conclusion[9] can be drawn.

1.                  The social-economic situation of a group, although it is of foremost importance in determining the stratification boundaries of the middle strata, is not a sufficient or unique criterion for distinguishing these strata (Tilkidjiev 2002). Social-economic status, for its part, is not reducible only to financial status, to the incomes and assets, but depends on the work situation and type of employment and occupation, on profession, market situation, job position, and institutional power resources.

2.                  The middle strata have an achieved social-economic status, based on education and qualification, on organizational skills, property; they rely mainly on their own labor and enjoy autonomy in their labor activity, carried out legally.

3.                  Three basic middle strata can be distinguished (Tilkidjiev 2002:186):

-                     Those including the private entrepreneurs in small and middle business, who mostly use their economic resources, such as real estate, financial means and property;

-                     Administrators, who rely mainly on their organizational resource;

-                     Professionals, known in some former communist countries as the “intelligentsia”, who have their cultural resource consisting in education, knowledge and qualification.

4.                  The middle strata are enterprising social actors; they share post-materialistic values and have a corresponding life style and consumption patterns.

In considering the results given in Table 2, obtained by representative sociological surveys in the late 1990s and in the end of 2006, one can trace the distribution of the adult population by social groups and strata.



Table 2 Social Strata in Bulgaria


(Source: Tilkidjiev 2002: 360-361 and ISSP research results for 2006)



Social groups – Social strata








1. High level state officials/administrators/managers






2. Professionals, non-top administrators and managers, experts






3. Routine non-manual employees






4. Small and medium sized entrepreneurs and self-employed farmers






5. Skilled manual workers and technicians and supervisors of workers






6. Semi-skilled and non-skilled manual workers, incl. agricultural









8. Unemployed




9. Students




10. Others





The Bulgarian middle strata, i.e. those who possess the “typical characteristics of middle strata” (Tilkidjiev 2002: 363) are calculated to be in fact about between 20% and 30% of the population, i.e. between three and four times bigger than in China, while about 42% of the people identify themselves as falling in this group, which is about 5% less than in China.

The previously cited data about the self-identification of the middle strata in China, show that in this country as well the people identifying themselves as such, i.e. the so-called “subjective middle class”, is much larger than what is defined as the “objective” one. This phenomenon can be observed not only in transition countries but also in highly developed modern societies: for instance in Japan the subjective middle class, according to some surveys’ results attains as much as 90% of respondents. Scholars have sought an explanation to this in the impact of the following factors: the growing share of non-manual occupations in modern and post-modern societies; the symbolic importance for the middle strata of the modern life style; the prestige of belonging to the middle class; the changes in consumption patterns. The greater part of those self-identifying as belonging to the middle strata, actually have in mind belonging to it in terms of prestige, i.e. they assess themselves as middle prestigious class, and make their estimate on the basis of their life style, consumption and position in the “middle” of the stratification range, not according to economic resources, in other words not as a “middle economic class” (Keliyan 1999: 97).


4. Middle strata patterns of development in China and Bulgaria


The present-day social strata in China and Bulgaria, including the middle ones, are connected in one way or another with the former social structures, and without knowledge of the latter it is impossible to trace the continuity between social-group structures or understand the construction of the new social order.

In a situation of prolonged and painful transformations of Bulgarian society after 1989, those who find themselves in the most advantageous position prove to be those who have at their disposal the greatest resources for adaptation. Under the previous regime such people were, on one hand, the stratum of the nomenklatura, with the greatest economic and social capital; on the other hand there were the people in the sphere of the informal economy, who also managed to amass considerable resources. Surveys in Bulgaria and in other former socialist countries show that the social origin of entrepreneurs that became such after 1989 is connected with precisely these two groups (Korzhov, 1998; Tilkidjiev, 1998; Keliyan and Nakano, 1998). The historical roots of the entrepreneurial class of today are connected with the preceding totalitarian period, during which the above-mentioned social groups accumulated the resources necessary for their post-totalitarian transformation. More specifically these are: 1) “proto-businesspeople” of the totalitarian period, including mainly people from the structures of the shady economy; 2) the former economic elite, such as, for instance, heads of state enterprises; 3) the former Party and state nomenklatura; 4) well-educated and independent-minded specialists and professionals, who succeed in transforming their cultural capital (Korzhov, 1998, p. 251). A considerable part of the entrepreneurs emerging anew in the post-communist societies is connected with the social groups that were marginal at the end of the socialist period, and they still cannot break free of the values of their group of origin. Hence arises the question of their ethos, of the social-cultural legitimacy of their economic activity and the legitimacy of the transition in general. The fact, attested by the data of a number of representative surveys, that the social-economic inequalities that emerged in this period are still perceived by a great part of the Bulgarian population asethically illegitimate”, signifies that the transformations have not yet reached completion (Tilkidjiev and Dimov 2003).

For our Chinese colleagues also it is very important and “essential for future sustainable development in China to bring about a reasonable order of social stratification with the aid of legal system”, because “without a legal economy there will be no moral economy” (Li, P. 2002: 45)

The stratum of contemporary Bulgarian intelligentsia that corresponds to the Western professionals differs considerably in terms of status characteristics from its counterparts in developed societies. After 1945 this group was placed in a situation of what Lenski called ‘status inconsistency’, having high cultural capital and comparatively low income. After the changes of 1989 it once again found itself on the fringe of public attention, because, as we made clear previously, the middle class is perceived foremost as a class of entrepreneurs, businesspeople and self-employed. Obviously in a post-communist society of the Bulgarian type the resource of property, whose bearers are the entrepreneurs, is much more prestigious than the resource of knowledge.

Due to its disadvantageous economic situation, the Bulgarian intelligentsia is the middle stratum with, perhaps, the highest degree of status inconsistency between its cultural and economic capital, and this is particularly true of its representatives occupied in the state sector.

Similarly to Bulgaria, in the 1980s and early 1990s in China “there occurred fundamental changes in the framework of the distribution and allocation of social resources and wealth and in the basic context of social stratification” (Sun, 2002: 61). The winners by the economic reforms where the people who had the possibility of drawing public resources from the economy and reinvesting them in productive activities in the form of private or collective enterprises (Tomba 2004). In China, like in Bulgaria and in other former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe “the old privileged groups managed to maintain their old pattern of intergeneration reproduction in the market-oriented transition by means of capital exchanges and their privileged access to social networks and human capital” (Li, L. 2003: 4). Since the middle of the 1990s the picture of “high achievers” became more complicated and this category started to include the expanding group of “urban professionals and skilled employees in both the public and private sector” (Tomba 2004.). They have been called “the fourth generation of those who got rich first” (xian fu qunti). The first three generations are: entrepreneurs - hard working agricultural entrepreneurs in the late 1970s; entrepreneurs in rural townships and village enterprises in the early 1980s; and successful entrepreneurs in speculative activities such as construction and the stock market in the 1990s. The housing reform that has been conducted since 1998 is among the important factors for the formation, stabilization and growth of the middle strata, specifically the professionals and administrators in the public sector. In China the early access to the privatization of housing became a major factor, one that had a much greater impact on social status than did the level of income. “The privatization of real estate itself becomes a source of socio-spatial differentiation, because through the real-estate market households are able to capitalize properties that were not distributed equally during the socialist period” (Wu and Li 2005).

Unlike the Bulgarian case, the emergence of a professional middle class in China has been the result of a purposeful and ideologically grounded state policy, leading to perceptible growth in salaries in the public sector and the defense of the social privileges of the publicly employed urban population. This is particularly true of the new middle strata of urban professionals and managers, whose consumption has been stimulated in order to stimulate production, maintain economic growth, and develop the market. While the traditional idea of prosperity in China did not go beyond the possession of “30 mu[10] of land, a cow, a wife, children and a hot stove” (Vatseva 2004), the new slogan “liberation of consumption forces” is leading to changes of consumption patterns.

A policy is being applied whereby “high salaries to foster honesty” are being paid to certain administrative positions in the public administration, the purpose of this being to achieve effective and non-corrupt administrative management. Administrators play a crucial role in the effective functioning of society; that is why stimulating them, as well as professionals, is perceived as a serious investment in the success of the reforms.

This situation shows that after the start of the reforms in China, public administrators, professionals, and experts are in a course of upward economic and social mobility. Their status gives them the capacity of maintaining and increasing their living standard, their social, cultural and economic advantages, as well as transmitting them to the following generations, which are in a considerably better starting position than that of other social strata. Their family members are usually occupied in the urban public sector and have a higher education and qualification level because of their advantages and privileged position in situation of “the growth of the supply of educational opportunities concomitant with the growth of educational inequality” (Li, C. 2003: 76).

The “social engineering” of the state, aimed at raising the consumer status of the middle strata, displays its most tangible results in the state housing policies (Tomba 2004). The state continues to distribute dwellings by subsidizing housing property for certain categories of administrators and professionals occupied in the state sector, whereby it raises their status and makes it more visible.

Unlike China, in Bulgaria this process has been left entirely to the power of the market, and state agents intervene only in the notorious cases of preferential purchasing by high ranking civil servants and their family members, of dwellings at low prices, beneath the market ones. In China the access to housing in certain neighborhoods is determined not only by income – the market principle, but also by the capacity to overcome administrative obstacles, social-cultural divisions, etc. The research of China’s changing social stratification system has focused almost entirely on the analysis of income, household assets and occupational mobility but some authors have drawn their attention to housing distribution system as a factor with increasing importance to life chances under a market-driven system (Bian and Liu 2005). The inequalities between the so-called “new middle class within the system” (white collar employees in state-owned sector) and those “outside the system” (working in non state-owned sector) “have further increased under the housing reform” (Li, J. and Niu: 2003: 19). The new middle class employed in the state-monopolistic industrial sector with a better economic performance forms the most influential group and the most stable elements of the new middle class in Beijing (ibid.).

The consumption of such important resources, which are in limited supply and, hence, difficult to accede to, is called “positional consumption” (Hirsh 1977) and is strongly dependent on “class position and class situation”. When competing for a limited number of dwellings, what is decisive are not only one’s financial resources (income, security of income and property) but likewise knowledge resources (education, knowledge about the real estate market), political resources (the capacity to make the formal rules in society and take advantage of them), and the social ones, especially membership in certain social networks. This phenomenon has been aptly called “gate under the market transition” (Wu 2005). At present in urban China we can observe a change of forms of “gated communities”, i.e. the transition from danwei (work-unit compounds) to gated commodity housing enclaves. At the time of socialist planning in China the so-called danwei system was imposed: cities were organized into something like cells formed around enterprises, near which the housing of the people working in them are built. Since danwei was the main administrative, production and social unit in cities at that time, the social status of everyone was highly dependent on the resources and status of one’s employer. The distributive institutions traditional for the previous system, for instance work units, have lost their role, their place being occupied by other “agents of the state’s project to ‘create’ a middle class”, for instance state-owned real estate developers and state commercial banks. Dependent on these agents is access to housing and to financial means for buying a home, because they do not function in a purely market environment, i.e. what we have here is social capital at work, the connection between public employment, the state and the achieved status. Those who succeed in preserving a relatively high status position in the public sector are directly or indirectly privileged in their access to the above-mentioned assets and have formed the so-called propertied class (fangchan jieji).

Within the newly formed middle strata neighborhood communities, are emerging the first middle strata social organizations in post-reform China, whose goals are to protect the rights and interests of inhabitants and owners, to resolve conflicts with investors, etc. (Read 2003). The existence of such organizations shows that residential communities are becoming a center of collective action. There is a noticeable change in life style among these middle strata: instead of being centered mainly on the workplace, their lives are shifting the emphasis to the housing environment and the respective community of neighbors. The common interests of neighbors in these communities and the need for defending these interests jointly have led to the above-mentioned residents’ grass-roots organizations for handling disputes, which are also the first informal organizations of the middle strata, an expression of their social and civil activeness.

Unfortunately, even after 18 years of democratic transition and under stable democratic institutions, neighborhood communities in Bulgaria are still finding it hard to create such organizations, even when it comes to defending their interests as residents of a neighborhood or as consumers of some services. A sad example is the recent case of misappropriation of more than 33 million euro in the central heating system of Sofia, a drastic abuse that failed to incite the population of the capital city to create its civic organization and structures for protest; the middle strata remained silent observers of events. Such civic passiveness and inability to organize in the name of the defense of collective interests is evident in numerous cases of severe violation of the rules of construction in residential neighborhoods, etc.


5.                  Conclusion


The analysis of middle strata patterns of development in China and Bulgaria shows that the decisive impact on them comes from the course, direction, objectives, and specific features of transformations in the two societies. As one can judge by the cited data, the Bulgarian middle strata are more widely represented than the Chinese ones: their relative share within the total population is more than four times as large as that of their Chinese counterparts. Regardless of the social and economic differences between separate regions in Bulgaria, the distribution of the middle strata in various parts of the country is more even. The comparison between recruitment mechanisms shows that in both societies, despite the role of education as an important resource for attaining higher status positions, what also has a very strong impact are the capacities for transforming the political, economic and social capital accumulated during the totalitarian period.

The emergence of a highly consumer-oriented professional middle class has been one of the goals of the Chinese political elite in the last years. The need for stimulating consumption, providing social and political stability and creating a more efficient and dynamic bureaucracy has forced the state to raise salaries and improve working and living condition of public sector employees and to give serous attention to their recruitment. In these social-economic conditions a life style of the new middle strata is emerging and consolidating, in which relations outside the work place and work environment are becoming important, and there is growing emphasis on the values connected with leisure activities and consumption. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria such public policies are lacking, which is one of the main reasons why the growth and stabilization of the middle strata has been so difficult, especially of the public sector professionals, i.e. the Bulgarian intelligentsia, which is sinking deeper and deeper into status inconsistency between its high cultural capital and relatively low income.

Because they live in societies in which social-stratification structures are in a process of on-going crystallization, both Chinese and Bulgarian middle strata amount to very thin layers compared with those in developed countries; they are in a considerably weaker social-economic position, have much lower income and, respectively, a lower capacity for consumption. But despite this, the middle strata in both countries, as is made clear by the cited data and the preceding analysis, differ from the rest of the respective population by the values they share, their life style and consumption patterns: in these they are more similar to their counterparts in developed countries than to other strata in their own societies.




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1.[1] The article was presened on different scientific forums: in 24.10.2006 on luncheon seminar of University Service Center for Chinese Studies at China University of Hong Kong; on Social Science Seminar at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on 9 November 2006; in International Forum on Middle Classes in Changsha, China, 21-22.07.2007 and was published as: Keliyan, M. 2007. Middle Strata Patterns of Development in China and Bulgaria. In: International Forum Middle Class Research with Comparative Perspective The 17th Annual Meeting of China Sociological Association. Sociology Institute, CASS, Changsha. pp. 136-154.


[2] Maya KELIYAN is Associate professor, Dr. at Institute of Sociology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. For contacts: mayakeliyan@gmail.com and keliyan@sociology.bas.bg


[3] In this case I have in mind comparative analysis in the broad sense, without treading on the territory of comparative research, which has its specific methods and is for the time being outside the field of my research efforts.

[4] As it will be explained later, I prefer to use the concept of “middle strata”, because it reflects the specific features of the surveyed social-group formations more accurately. Throughout this text, when I am discussing or quoting the opinions of various authors, I remain within their conceptual framework and use the term they have accepted, respectively “middle class” or “middle strata”.

[5] This coefficient is used to measure the income distribution among households and its values are an indicator of economic inequality in a society. The nearer the value is to 0, the more evenly distributed the incomes, and the nearer to 1, the greater the inequality of incomes.

[6] Cf. China Daily, 08.08.2006; the conclusions are drawn on the basis of an analysis of statistical data from the latest population census in PRC.

[7] Similar results were obtained by the international survey “Democratic Values” at the end of 2000.

[8] For more details about different above mentioned opinions see: Tilkidjiev 2002; Tilkidjiev (ed.) 1998; Keliyan and Nakano 1999: 13-15 and Keliyan 1999: 73-75.

[9] These conclusions are based on the theoretical concepts on middle classes and middle strata of Bulgarian sociologist Tilkidjiev, N., presented in his book “Middle Class and Social Stratification” 2002.


[10] 30 mu is approximately 2 hectares.


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