The new class war
China’s middle class is larger, richer and more vocal than ever before. That threatens the Communist Party, says Rosie Blau
WHEN 13-YEAR-OLD Xiao Kang began to feel lethargic and his breathing grew wheezy last autumn, his parents assumed he was working too hard at school. Then his fellow classmates at Changzhou Foreign Languages Middle School started complaining too. The private school in a wealthy city on China’s eastern seaboard had moved to a smart new campus in September 2015, close to a site formerly occupied by three chemical factories. Tests showed the soil and water to have concentrations of pollutants tens of thousands of times the legal limits, and over 100 pupils have been diagnosed with growths on their thyroid and lymph glands. Yet the school denies responsibility, and the local authority has put pressure on parents to keep their children in attendance and stopped them from protesting. The toxic school remains open.
Xiao Kang and his family are beneficiaries of China’s rise. His forebears were farmers and more recently factory workers, but he attends the “best” school in the city (meaning it gets the highest university entrance scores). His father hopes he will become an architect or a designer and may go to study abroad one day. As with many of his generation, all the financial and emotional resources of the boy’s two parents and four grandparents are concentrated on this single child. The family is shocked that the government is so heedless of the youngster’s fate. If a school in any other country was found to be built on poisoned ground, it would immediately be shut, says the boy’s father. Why not in China?
For most of China’s modern history, its people have concentrated on building a materially comfortable existence. Since 1978 more than 700m people have been lifted out of poverty. For the past four decades almost everyone could be confident that their children’s lives would be better than their own. But the future looks less certain, particularly for the group that appears to be China’s greatest success: the middle class. Millions of middle-income Chinese families like Xiao Kang’s are well fed, well housed and well educated. They have good jobs and plenty of choices in life. But they are now confronting the dark side of China’s 35 years of dazzling growth.
This special report will lay out the desires and aspirations of this fast-expanding group. Many Chinese today are individualistic, empowered and keen to shape society around them. Through social media, they are changing China’s intellectual landscape. They are investing in new experiences of all kinds. But discontent over corruption, inequality, tainted food and a foul environment is sharp and deep; many worry that their hard-fought gains are ill-protected. For decades the Communist Party has kept control over a population that now numbers 1.4 billion by exceeding people’s expectations.
Their lives have improved faster than most of them could have dreamt. Though the state has used coercion and repression, it has also relieved many pressure points. Now it is finding it increasingly hard to manage the complex and competing demands of the middle class; yet to suppress them risks holding back many of the most productive members of society.
When the Communist Party seized power in 1949, China’s bourgeoisie was tiny. In the Cultural Revolution two decades later, wealth, education and a taste for foreign culture were punished.
But after housing was privatised in the 1990s, the government tied its fortunes to this rapidly expanding sector of society, encouraging it to strive for the material trappings of its rich-world peers.
For the first time in China’s history a huge middle class now sits between the ruling elite and the masses. McKinsey, a consultancy, estimates its size at around 225m households, compared with just 5m in 2000, using an annual income of 75,000-280,000 yuan ($11,500-43,000) as a yardstick. It predicts that between now and 2020 another 50m households will join its ranks.
They are spread across the country, but are highly concentrated in urban areas (see map); around 80% of them own property; and they include many of the Communist Party’s 88m members.
Though China’s population as a whole is ageing, the middle class is getting younger. Nearly half of all people living in cities are under 35: they are eight times more likely than country-dwellers to be university graduates; and most are treasured and entitled only children, with no memory of a time when their country was poor. The internet has expanded their horizons, even if the government shuts out many foreign websites and quashes dissenting voices. Today’s young Chinese tend to do what they want, not what society expects—a profound and very recent shift. Most of these young people exercise their autonomy by choosing their own marriage partners or shelling out for a new car. But many have an appetite for civic engagement too: they are the foot-soldiers of China’s non-government organisations, a vast, though often politically sensitive, array of groups seeking to improve society in a variety of ways.
Pressures on the middle class are growing. Some feel that no matter how able they are, the only way they can succeed is by having the right connections. Housing has been a driver of economic growth, yet property rights are shaky, and the government encourages private investment without adequately regulating financial products. As more people go to university, returns to education are falling and graduate jobs are harder to come by. Many fret that their children may not see the progressive improvements in material well-being they themselves have enjoyed, and more youngsters are going abroad.
Political scientists have long argued that once individuals reach a certain level of affluence they become interested in non-material values, including political choice. Average income per person in China’s biggest cities is now at roughly the same level as in Taiwan and South Korea when those countries became democracies. When China opened up its markets in the 1980s, democratic demands were widely expected to follow. They did, but were savagely silenced in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Since then, a mixture of political repression, fear of chaos, pride in China’s advance and a huge rise in living standards has kept the country steady.
China’s middle classes increasingly look and behave like their rich-world peers, but they do not necessarily think like them. Intellectuals privately express a sense of despair that since becoming party chief in 2012, Xi Jinping has shuttered free expression and ramped up ideology. Yet most of the population at large seems unconcerned. If an election were held tomorrow, Mr Xi would very probably win by a large majority—and not just because there is no viable opposition.
However, although few people in China are demanding a vote, many are becoming more and more frustrated by the lack of political accountability and transparency, even if they rarely label them as such. The party is clearly worried. In an internal document in 2013 it listed “seven things that should not be discussed”: universal values, press freedom, civil society, economic liberalism, historical mistakes made by the party, Western constitutional democracy and questioning the nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Recently these have often become flashpoints between the middle class and the government.
No wonder that political trust in China is declining. A series of nationwide surveys from 2003 to the present, commissioned by Anthony Saich of Harvard University, show that the wealthy think less of the government than poorer folk do. Other polls show that richer and better-educated people are more likely to support the rule of law, market allocation of resources and greater individual autonomy; the less-well-off often favour traditional values and authoritarian rule.
Wang Zhengxu of the University of Nottingham in Britain and You Yu of Xiamen University in China go further. They observe a clear decline in trust in legal institutions, the police and local government between 2002 and 2011, despite a consistently good economic performance and rising social benefits, and reckon that “the era of critical citizens” has arrived in China.
Many wondered how the party could ever survive after it brutally crushed pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989. Its solution was to make people rich very quickly. Since 1990 the blistering pace of economic growth has been the party’s most important source of legitimacy, delivering its overriding priority: stability. For a while these goals meshed well with each other and with people’s personal aspirations: under an unspoken agreement, people could amass wealth so long as they did not try to amass political power too. The recent slowdown in growth puts a question mark over that compact.
Kingdom in the middle
The middle class is not the only source of potential instability. In the western province of Xinjiang, repression of ethnic minorities has aggravated an incipient insurgency. Tibet is simmering too. And across China millions of workers in declining industrial sectors risk losing their livelihoods. Many migrants from rural areas working in cities feel rootless and marginalised, denied access to facilities such as health care and education. Divisions within the party elite are also a potential problem. And although dissidents have been silenced for now, they could find their voice again.
China’s Communist Party has shown extraordinary resilience to destabilising forces and an impressive ability to recreate itself. It has ditched most of its founding principles and tied itself to the middle-class wealth-creators, expanding its membership to include the very group it once suppressed.
Since the 1990s the Chinese model has proved so flexible that it appeared to break the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress. To some it seemed to offer a credible alternative to democracy.
Now China is beginning to reach the limits of growth without reform. The complexity of middle-class demands, the rush of unintended consequences of economic growth and now a slowing economy are challenging the party’s hold. It has to find new ways to try to appease a population far more vocal and more individualistic than previous generations.