Research | Social mobility and wellbeing | 2013-09-04

Survey on Public Perception of the 'Middle Class'

A survey released by the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre (the Centre) today (4 September 2013) looks into public perception of criteria shaping the 'middle class' in Hong Kong.

Commissioned by the Centre, Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong conducted the survey between 2 and 15 July among 1,005 local residents who are 18 years old or above. The survey identified a number of criteria that are commonly used to define the 'middle class', grouped under five aspects namely economic, human, social and cultural capitals as well as political participation (See notes for details). Respondents were asked to describe the level of importance of each criterion in defining the 'middle class'.

 “Each person may have a different interpretation of the 'middle class', the Centre’s Chairman Dr Donald Li said, “For example, institutions such as the World Bank and United States Department of Commerce have defined the class by income level while some scholars have extended the term to a wider scope, including occupation, academic qualification, lifestyle and even personal feelings. These benchmarks could inform the public more about the 'middle class' but it would be very difficult to reach a general consensus. The survey findings have sketched an image of the 'middle class' in the eyes of Hong Kong people and provided data which might be useful for our future studies such as demographic structure and social mobility. ”

The survey found that in defining the 'middle class', the public put more emphasis on the economic indicators, including owning a certain amount of assets, property ownership and high income, than over education and occupation which are commonly used to gauge socio-economic status.

In general, local citizens consider the economic capital, a measure of wealth, as the most important criterion to define the 'middle class'. Among those who believe economic capital as either very important or important for defining the 'middle class', over half (56.7%) consider people owning properties worth between HK$2 million and below HK$8 million match their perception of being part of the 'middle class'. Around 63.7% believe the 'middle class' should hold a minimum value of assets between HK$0.5 million and below HK$6 million excluding values of properties they own. Meanwhile, about 45.5% set a threshold on monthly income for the middle class, which is between HK$30,000 and below HK$60,000.

“People broadly believe that high academic qualifications or career achievement which are normally attained through personal efforts are more important than family background or social connections in order to be part of the 'middle class'. This is encouraging as self-betterment has always been a value cherished by Hong Kong people and is vital in maintaining Hong Kong’s long-term competitiveness,” Dr Li said.

According to the survey findings, over 70% of the respondents consider being culturally enriched (73.8%) and being concerned about social issues (70.7%) as either very important or important for being the 'middle class'. These two criteria rank next to the economic indicators, and surpass the criteria of holding high academic qualifications as well as managerial and professional positions which are traditionally used for social stratification.

“This shows that while people put much emphasis on economic capital for defining the 'middle class', they also have positive views on the 'middle class'. The perception seems in common with expectations of the intellectuals in traditional Chinese culture, who should be culturally enriched and caring for the society,” Dr Li added.

Only 30% of the respondents consider themselves as belonging to the 'middle class', the survey showed. Among those who believe they are not the 'middle class', the younger respondents, especially those aged 18-29 years old, are more keen to move upward to the 'middle class' and are more likely to have a ‘middle-class dream’.

The survey also found that it may be more controversial to define the 'middle class' by lifestyle or participation in social or political issues.



Criteria to define the 'middle class' were identified and grouped under the following five aspects:

1. Economic Capital / Asset: similar to the economic capital used in academic studies. It consists of three conditions, namely owning a certain amount of assets, property ownership and high income.

2. Human Capital: referring to achievement or status obtained mainly through studies or career. It consists of high levels of academic qualifications and engagement in managerial or professional positions.

3. Social Capital: referring to advantages achievable from social connections, including from families and friends. It consists of a good family background and social connections.

4. Cultural Capital: referring to shared cultural characteristics of a group. It consists of being culturally enriched and having ‘taste’ in one’s lifestyle.

5. Political: the survey has included the criteria of ‘being concerned about social issues’ and ‘participating in social or political issues’, as they are commonly quoted by local studies.


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