The writing on the wall is clear: internet and social media have exposed the people to the outside world beyond China’s Great Wall, so now they will demand more freedom the way others are enjoying across the world
China’s post-Mao reform era is largely seen as beginning of a “transition” and the numerous manifestations of the impact of the market on the socialist nation. In this historic shift, China’s burgeoning middle class has been scripting a new future for rising China either knowingly or unknowingly. The legitimacy of the post-Communist regime was primarily moulded around the simultaneous development of two significant aspects: material (wuzhi) and spiritual (jingshen). China’s material ladder of the civilisation refers to the growth element of the model and the spiritual aspect the social control aspect of the same. Deng Xiaoping’s call for a “xiaokang” (well-off) society in the 1980s and Hu Jintao’s trademark evocation of a “hexieshehui” (harmonious society) largely reflects how the future of the country would be determined by the growing middle class, but of course no one can be really immune from political conditioning imposed by the all powerful Communist Party of China (CPC). The grand “China dream” of Xi Jinping under which he aspires to rejuvenate the whole nation is adding both flavour and friction to a much wider debate around how the CPC will fit into or fulfil the fast growing demands of the middle class while bolstering the relevance of it.
As of today, China has a huge middle class, which sits between the ruling elite of the CPC and the poor. McKinsey, a global consultancy, in its report records that China’s middle class is estimated to be 225 million households compared to just 5 million in 2000. The yardstick it has used was an annual income of 75,000-2,80,000 yuan i.e. $11,500-43,000. This report predicts that between now and 2020 another 50 million households will join its ranks. They are spread across the country, but are highly concentrated in urban areas; around 80 per cent of them own property; and they include many of the Communist Party’s 88 million members. When China got Independence in 1949, the country had a small section of bourgeoisie. Again, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which ended with his death in 1976, people possessing wealth, education and interested in western culture were either harassed or eliminated by the so-called “Red Guards” across the country. But with liberalisation, the country has registered considerable progress; and particularly its middle class has come a long way on the economic ladder.
The biggest worry for the middle class is that the wealth of the top rich class has surged much ahead of them. On record, Beijing now has more billionaires than New York and this contributes to the increasing gap between the super rich and the middle class. The combined net worth of the country’s 568 billionaires is almost equivalent to Australia’s GDP. Besides, the gap between the upper and the lower ends of the middle class is growing much faster than ever before. On the other hand, the most of the members of the China’s middle classes own property and they have decent jobs either in the Government sectors or in esteemed private sector companies. Still they worry that they are being constantly squeezed both from the top and the bottom as they are not getting enough space for free expression of their ideas and restricted in voicing their woes to the political authority. The recent history shows that by 1980s, China was among one of the most equal societies in the world with a Gini coefficient of 0.3, but in 2008, the country had gone up to 0.49. Though the past seven years have shown a declining trend as pay for both rural and blue collar jobs has been on the rise than the white collar jobs, but today with Gini coeficient at 0.46, it is still much higher than the rich OECD club of countries. It is an alarming rate and it rightly demonstrates the countries sharpening gap between the rich and the poor.
The stress on harmony as a rationality of the Government at this turning point is not coincidental, rather it is an utter necessity for the CPC to restore order and normalcy in the country. Today the Chinese society is described as complex by its own political elites, which largely incorporate diverse and often conflicting interests. And all of them are looking for representation and better enhancement of their facilities as time passes by. However, in a dominant society like that of China, these tendencies are not been portrayed as being at opposing ends of the CPC. The post-Mao leadership tries to refer them as non-antagonistic and the objective of the Government is to accommodate them as far as possible. The idea behind is crystal clear — avoid conflict and larger socio-political chaos in the country. Else it would simply mean an immediate challenge to the authority of the CPC and its losing relevance in the Chinese society. It is argued that although harmonious society does not appear to constitute a departure from traditional paternalistic type of governance that the CPC wants to impose on its people by creating a unique set of institutional mechanism. In reality, the political apparatus of the socialist hierarchical state is still in vogue and after three decades of marketisation, hardly there is any sign of what the system might successfully supplant it. Nonetheless, the monolithic state is adapting so quietly that outsiders cannot feel the growing conflicts within except on rare occasions. As Luigi Tomba states, “The rationalities of Government and the subjects, it attempts to produce today, are different from those thirty years ago. Today the State requires citizens who are both autonomous (so they can participate in the market) and responsible (so they will maintain the political status quo).” Thus the Government has purposefully shaped the middle class to serve its long-term interests but not to fulfil their far cry for more rights and liberties.
Many middle class folks feel that they are being rewarded lesser than what they deserve. They see society as unfair as their demands are gradually been sidelined by the Government. They are squeezed further by zoning them in marked areas so that the Government can control their anger better than in a society wherein the middle class is spread across. Thus the outcome is a classification of society into those who are bearers of modernity and can be trusted to govern themselves and those who need to be improved and governed. It stresses on the latter class for improvement and adjustment in the governing process.
Whatsoever it may be, China’s middle rung people may one day be one of the main irritants to the CPC which created the same for serving it. In fact, this class which has fashioned their lifestyle much like their western peers may have the potential to destabilise the longstanding rule of the CPC. It is ironical also why a section of society which can see life beyond the borders of the traditional Chinese society will ever listen to the age old maxims of the CPC. The party has helped hundreds of millions get richer but has done little to ensure that their assets serve them the way they want. Pension and insurance schemes are too weak in China and many think that Government is totally irresponsible in meeting the demands of the middle class. The party does not offer any explanation. Even if the people want to approach the judiciary, it is again a party controlled machine. Then where to go? The ordinary people either stay clueless or give up the hope for getting justice ever in their life. The biggest myth about China is that its people do not have the power to vote their leaders in a popular election and it is easy for the CPC to control the emerging conflicts. For decades, the CPC has been claiming to represent the will of the people. “Since 1980 it has often done that for pragmatic reasons. It has remained in power largely by letting its citizens get richer and staying ahead of their expectations, occasionally even bending to some of their demands.” This shows how the CPC is scared of the growing awareness of the people about their unholy alliance with power. The control over the commons is now fraying and it might so happen that China will see its doomsday soon.
Finally, it can rightly be argued that China’s long-term policies to curb public anger will prove to be disastrous one fine day for sure. People are angry about corruption, pollution and inequality in society. Drumming up national sentiment on issues related to South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang will not always help the CPC retain power forever. China’s challenge will most probably come from within than from outside. Its global march to reach out to all corners of the world and teaming up with an anti-western brigade of nations or at times offering support to African dictators may lose the relevance of its growth model soon. Mainly, China’s much ambitious route to “peaceful rise” was decried by most of the Asian nations and the way Xi Jinping is trying to bring back the Maoist ethos back will further deteriorate the regional power balance in the coming days. China’s empire building efforts must reflect the realities it has been facing inside the country. Its citizens are not getting adequate space to ventilate their grievances and hence the CPC must realise the futility of extending its arm beyond its capacity. Xi’s constant call to love the Communist Party and actively practise socialist core values may not take him and his beloved party farther. It has been observed that the CPC will rather look for, and always used to, authoritarianism rather than taking resort to accountability, even in the event of a possible middle class upsurge across China. It is certain that there may not be an immediate revolt or civil rights movement anytime soon, but the huge middle class is definitely looking for a change. The CPC’s iron grip over the party and the policy making may require an urgent adjustment so that it will be able to douse the fire in the middle class gradually.
The writing on the wall is clear: internet and social media have exposed the people to the outside world beyond China’s Great Wall, so now they will demand more and more freedom the way others are enjoying across the world. The CPC’s policy of balancing freedom of expression with repression is no longer sustainable and it may invite major setback to the survival of the party. It is time now to gear up to go ahead with the changing dynamics of a globalised society. The CPC’s control over the masses needs to be redefined. The social engineering of the urban middle class may bring unrest unless the CPC brings forth gradual changes in the process of governance and accordingly spare more spaces for them.