China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
The contemporary Chinese white-collar man emerged as the reform era’s poster boy of aspirational masculinity and middle-class status in the 1990s and 2000s (Hird 2009). Discursive representations emphasised his material success, commitment to marital equality and engaged fatherhood, associating the middle class with propriety, business ethics, tolerance and pluralism. Modernization theory posited him as the vanguard figure in China’s move towards democracy, individualism, and integration with advanced Western market societies.
Yet by the 2010s the gloss had come off this image. Popular media reported on low-paid white-collar ‘ant-tribes’ and white-collar ‘losers’, provided cautionary accounts of middle-class men’s destructive careerism and marital breakdowns, and documented the middle class’s turn to Buddhist meditation for relief from anxiety. Men under pressure retrenched to stereotypical ideas of gender, seeking sexual pleasure and social status through extra-marital girlfriends and second wives. Men’s relationship building during business socializing inhibited individualism. Instead of inexorable Westernization, middle-class men’s masculinities were localized through historical and cultural nationalist—including Confucian—discourses.
Using interview data from Beijing and London and analysis of cultural products, this paper challenges teleological narratives of middle-class masculinity in China’s modernization. It suggests that middle-class Chinese men’s simultaneous reworking of transnational business and Confucian masculinities affords them advantages in local and global power relations of gender, class and nation. It questions white-collar men’s reputed moral propriety, egalitarianism, democratic mindedness and individualism; the association between the middle class and progressiveness; and the notion that modernization is synonymous with Westernization.