Department of Social Anthropology

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A quest for success in urban China. A study of "Young Urban Professionals" in Beijing

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By Dag Inge Bøe

Supervisor: Professor Leif Ole Manger


In this thesis I examine how young urban professionals in Beijing relate to their experience of participating in the modern Chinese capitalist economy. Their experiences are seen along economic and social lines: from considering economic and social historical context to discussing the on-going process of individualisation in China as presented by young urban professionals through how they talk about economic life and social life.
Relating to economic life, the ideal workplace and the various factors that influence their choice of workplace, from corporate culture to corporate welfare provision is presented. Different spheres of corporate culture inform their choices when assessing companies, as they tend to reject a cultural Chinese business approach in favour of international companies due to their disregard of the importance of guanxi, social connections in a company with a culturally Chinese corporate culture.

The ideal job provides security for the future through being financially high-yielding and stable. In a gendered version, women should have a stable job that is not too demanding, conveniently in harmony with an explicit ideal of the undisputed male breadwinner. This interplay between economic life and social life is recurring theme throughout the thesis, as social life and economic life are the two meta-levels that the underlying current of individualisation manifested itself the most clearly on when my informants articulated their view of the challenges they are facing and the options they have.

The new, individualised social life in urban China is discussed through the strong emphasis on marriage and concern for the social self; a social pressure on men to carry the family name on and a social disregard for women who fail to marry. It is considered appropriate for men to marry down, again the ideal of the undisputed breadwinner, ensuring that women who succeed too well become unmarriageable, written off as “leftover-women”.
Different spheres of corporate culture again influences the strategies of young urban professionals, as State Owned Enterprises, the high seat of culturally Chinese corporate culture, provide an unprecedented stability, gives various welfare perks including potentially the immensely important Beijing hukou residency permit, and also are more likely to give peiyang, corporate training as young urban professionals emphasise the importance to continuously improve themselves. This drive to improve oneself is discussed in terms of suzhi, a Chinese concept of “human quality” that political rhetoric insists on increasing on a national level, as the insufficient suzhi is preventing China from modernising. The emphasis placed on peiyang might be seen as internalising the national concern for suzhi. This internalisation is symptomatic in the analytical approach towards for young urban professionals in terms of class, as it relates to individualisation.