Tags: Middle | Class | Begins | Alter | China

Middle Class Begins to Alter China

Monday, 04 February 2002 12:00 AM

According to Britain's Economist magazine, "China's middle class is expanding rapidly." But nobody knows what they want or how they will influence government policy as their numbers grow.

"The country's accession last month to the World Trade Organization (WTO), optimists in the West often argue, will make China more prosperous and thereby boost the development of the middle class," the Economist reported Jan. 19.

Noting that an affluent middle class might demand republican reform because traditionally middle classes want a say in government, the Economist asked, "Has China taken in a Trojan horse?"

If it has, it's not yet a big one, according to a new study of China's social classes by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) - which religiously avoided the use of the word "class" - this "middle stratum" amounts to a bare 15 percent of the working population compared with 60 percent in America. Still, the Economist notes, that figure represents a 110 million Chinese, or about half of the urban population now employed.

But the numbers are growing. "Cities that 15 years ago were grim, Stalinist backwaters are today aglow with the trappings of middle class life," the Economist reported.

"The cities that have benefited most from the flood of foreign investment into China over the past decade - Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen - now boast more white collar workers than blue collar ones. The working class, which according to Communist rhetoric still leads the country, is shrinking. The state sector is crumbling. Private enterprise is booming."

The same can't be said of China's Communist Party, which is stuck in the distant past. The party refuses to call the middle class by its correct designation because, as the Economist explained, "To recognize such people as a class would turn the ideology of the last 50 years on its head.

"Mao Zedong sought to eliminate the capitalist-roaders and, despite the more tolerant economic climate of the past 20 years, it was only less than three years ago that the legitimacy of private enterprise was fully recognized in the constitution."

Dictator Jiang Zemin caused a furor within the party last July when he suggested that entrepreneurs be allowed to join.

According to Long Yongtu, China's chief negotiator at the WTO accession talks, within 10 years 400 million to 500 million Chinese will be earning a "middle income," making China's market "much bigger" than that of the United States.

An official from the State Information Center estimated recently that by 2005 China would have 200 million middle-income consumers. The official was quoted by a state-run news agency as saying this class could afford to buy cars and housing and spend money on leisure travel.

Not everyone agrees with these figures. Zhang Wanli, who participated in the CASS study, insisted there was a lot of "journalistic hype" in China about the size of the middle class. That class, she predicted, will still be about what it is now in five years. Its growth, she said, will be limited by growing urban unemployment, depressed incomes and widespread under-employment in the countryside.

What does all this portend for the future of Beijing's dictatorship?

Some Chinese officials worry that a growing middle class could threaten the regime.

A study released last May by the Communist Party's Central Organization Department warned that "as the economic standing of the affluent stratum has increased, so too has its desire for greater political standing."

The report added that this would have a "profound impact on social and political life" in China. The Economist suggested that it was this threat that led President Jiang to invite businessmen into the party's ranks to ensure their loyalty to Beijing and prevent them from using their new economic power in ways that might threaten the party.

Other researchers disagree, suggesting that those businessmen who have sought membership in the party or in elective office seek merely to gain social status and security rather than to try to change the system by working within it.

The CASS study warned that the government has failed to give "full political recognition to the interests of their social stratum" as well as adequate legal protection for their property, and could, as a result, be helping to foment attempts to change the system.

But businessmen don't seem to be demanding any such guarantees, at least not in any organized way.

Shen Mingming, director of Beijing University's Research Center for Contemporary China, told the Economist that the only groups in China "with collective political consciousness are those traditionally recognized by the party: workers, peasants and 'intellectuals,' as graduates are known."

There has been unrest, but it has involved the unemployed and downtrodden peasants who have frequently protested corruption or violations of their rights.

Despite any political concerns they might have, however, private businessmen are getting rich at a greater pace than any of their fellow countrymen.

"During this transitional process, these people are direct beneficiaries, they are getting a free ride, so why should they bother" trying to change the system, argued Shen.

Chinese scholars say that such Asian nations as South Korea and Taiwan managed to keep an authoritarian hold on their countries while rapidly growing economically and even after the emergence of a large middle class.

Sooner or later, however, as those nations learned, middle-class rage will emerge and change will come.

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According to Britain's Economist magazine, China's middle class is expanding rapidly. But nobody knows what they want or how they will influence government policy as their numbers grow. The country's accession last month to the World Trade Organization (WTO),...
Monday, 04 February 2002 12:00 AM
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