Many Beijingers are surprised to discover they have joined the ranks of the middle class without realizing it.
According to a report released Wednesday, Beijing's middle class accounted for 46 percent of the population in 2009, higher than the nation's average – and the percentage is fast increasing.
The report, by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), based its calculations on Engel's coefficient, an economic measure of expenditure on food relative to income – the lower the coefficient, the wealthier the country.
In China, the average is 37 percent, or 230 million people. If a family's expenditure on food accounts for 30 to 37.3 percent of overall consumer expenses, then they are defined as middle class, said the report.
"I think most of us have been defined as middle class by the academy while we are not," Jiang Yuan, a freelance film director living in Tiantongyuan in Changping district, told the Global Times on Thursday.
"In my understanding, a person can be called middle class if he doesn't have to worry about food and clothing, has a job, and can afford rent and a car in Beijing," he said. "I don't know how the statistics work, but I think the middle class in Beijing is about 30 percent, tops."
It is notoriously difficult to define what middle class means, whether income, education, employment, property or even cultural preferences are taken into consideration.
The public may have had a misunderstanding about the number, said Song Yingchang with the Institute for Urban and Environment Studies under CASS, and chief writer of the report.
"Our research was conducted from a national perspective. The average income in Beijing is higher than that in many Chinese cities, so the city's number might be more than people expected, while people themselves don't notice the difference," Song said.
However, the public is divided, as some think the percentage is lower than they assumed.
"Beijing has a high migrant population, and there are a lot more rich guys in Beijing than we know," said Zhang Yihua who works at a film equipment company in Beijing.
"There's a great number of civil servants in Beijing with a lot of gray income, for example," he said, "and I think the report is just trying to calm the poor down by giving them a compromised number, which won't make them feel bad about the big wealth gap."
The middle class percentage for Beijing reflects a basically true situation, according to Zhong Dajun, director of the Beijing Dajun Institute for Economic Observation.
"I estimate that earning about 4,000 to 5,000 yuan ($621 to 776) per month is middle class in Beijing, which is about the average income level for the city," he said.
The average annual salary in Beijing was 50,145 yuan in 2010, according to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics.
Problems also emerge with economic prosperity in Beijing, Song said, and traffic congestion, deteriorating city environment, swelling population and unequal access to public services are hindering the urban development of the city.
"Beijing is not doing well enough in city management and government services," Song said, "for example, it's difficult for migrants to blend in, and they don't have the same access to public services like the locals."
The middle class in China will grow on average by 2.3 percent a year from 2010 to 2025, the report said, and it's estimated that by the year 2023 the number will reach more than 50 percent.