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Home  /  Inside China  /  The Chinese Middle Class - Agents of Change or Harmony?
The Chinese Middle Class - Agents of Change or Harmony? print version
There are different predictions among scholars concerning where China is heading to politically, though most people agree that the Chinese middle class is a good representative of present and future trends. While some see the growing autonomy of the middle class as an indicator of the limitation of state power and the rise of a civil society, there are scholars who see such class as an agent of political stability and a loyal partner of the Chinese state.
Scholars unanimously agree the since the beginning of the reform era (1979) China is gradually becoming a less totalitarian state and that by the development of a market economy with abundant private initiative, the Chinese government is inevitably letting go of its invasion and supervision potential. What scholars who are studying China don't seem to agree upon, is how to define the current political in China and the direction it is marching to, in terms of government authority, democratization, the formation of a civil society, the role of the middle class, and more.

In one dimension, there is an evident balance between the control level of the Communist Party and the more practical economic needs. Logistically, China's economy cannot grow without private forces, international private cooperation and accumulation of foreign advance knowledge. The Chinese government and the Communist Party not only cannot maintain resources to monitor or limit such activities to a large extent, without critically obstructing China's development, but they also seek to form a system that will be somehow legitimized by the international community (some obviously claim that the current system in China is ignoring many essential human-right related values, but much effort and flexibility were carried out in order to reach the present state).

In a different level, the Chinese government can be seen as a strong system that still has the potential to supervise local governments, maintains some important non-privatized industries, keeps a close eye on the media and often encourages certain fractions of society to actively engage in projects or activities which have the ultimate goal of strengthening the Chinese state and assuring a better socioeconomic future (a recent Thinking Chinese article elaborates on this point).

A group of society which receives the focus of attention of many social scientists is the Chinese urban middle-class. The growth rate of the Chinese middle class, its consumption habits and Western aspiration seem to be very representatives of changes taking place in the Chinese society, as well as the overall growth of China's economy. From managing private enterprises, forming a new generation of mainland scholars or establishing connections with foreigners overseas, many observers can't help seeing the middle-class as a contradictive force to the conservative communist regime, even in its latest younger format. Furthermore, new NGO's and community activities are also often associated with the middle class, reinforcing the idea that such class is inevitably promoting a civil society and democratization, in a quite similar way to what has been experienced in many Western states.

Italian political scientist Luigi Tomba presents a different perspective, claiming that such democratization course doesn't exist in China. Not only the middle class cannot be regarded as an agent of such trend, but, according to Tomba, it shouldn't even be seen as a force that the Chinese leadership needs to overcome in order to maintain its hegemony. Most middle class members see themselves as strongly linked to two main discourses initiated by the Chinese government and by this they see their moral-social responsibility (Tomba chooses intentionally to focus on the moral side and not the economic aspect in his paper I am citing) in preserving the current order and courses promoted by the Chinese government. These discourses are 'popultion quality' renkou suzhi according to which the middle class, due to its level of education, residence, values and financial skills, represents 'high quality' and should serve an example for those who cannot govern themselves (zizhi) and need to improve. The second discourse is the concept of harmony hexie, which party chairman Hu Jintao stressed in a 2005 speech, addressing the autonomous social players, who are asked to assist in maintaining a hexie shehui (harmonious society), where conflicting ideas are smoothly dissolved.

Tomba witnesses the commitment of the middle class in undertaking the social responsibility designated to them by the state, through certain fields: Newly established Community Committees (shequ weiyuanhui) which are often governed by middle class members and shaped to reflect their rising status and ethics, newly constructed urban spaces and residential compounds which represent the middle class lifestyle, as well as the long term involvement of the middle class in the construction of China's social and economic development strategies, thus making a the middle class a faithful 'partner' of the state, and one which is gladly fulfilling its side of such partnership.

The ideas reflected by Tomba are important in terms of lighting up several forces that exist in the complex state-middle class dynamics. In addition to the 'system' he presents, there are some patriotic and historical-traditional elements which lead the middle class to consider the overall benefit of the nation under the communist leadership. Though as these dynamics are indeed complex, one shouldn't conclude decisively that the middle class as a whole is an agent of state policies, without considering the fact that the individual freedom it yet possesses, does, in many cases, expose the middle class to ideas that are not in accord with the line implemented by the state, or allows the middle class members to develop personal aspirations while neglecting the overall national benefit. As Tomba states, the result seems to serve the development of China, but this doesn't necessarily mean that the autonomous nature of the middle class sees the concept of 'population quality' and 'social harmony' as the ultimate goal.

Assisting source:  Tomba, L. 2009. "Of Quality, Harmony, and Community: Civilization and the Middle Class in Urban China." positions: east asia cultures critique 17 (3): 592-616.

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