“Five Myths About Communist China”

Foreign Policy just put out a great article covering five pieces of pop wisdom about China’s Communist Party. I won’t spoil all five, but the fifth and final one – as if you couldn’t see it coming, it is the myth that “The Party Can’t Rule Forever” – is especially important, yet seems to have left out a few key details. Namely, it isn’t clear why the Chinese middle class should be expected to “want” any more political freedom.

The author, Richard McGregor, writes:

China’s urban middle class may wish for more political freedom, but it hasn’t dared rise up en masse against the state because it has so much to lose. Over the last three decades, the party has enacted a broad array of economic reforms, even as it has clamped down hard on dissent. The freedom to consume — be it in the form of cars, real estate, or well-stocked supermarkets — is much more attractive than vague notions of democracy, especially when individuals pushing for political reform could lose their livelihoods and even their freedom. The cost of opposing the party is prohibitively high. Hence the hotbeds of unrest in recent years have mostly been rural areas, where China’s poorest, who are least invested in the country’s economic miracle, reside. “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose except your mortgages” doesn’t quite cut it as a revolutionary slogan.

It seems pretty clear from history that the state of the economy is so strong a predictor of political stability that, if China maintains its stable and high annual growth rate, we have no reason to expect any sort of unrest on part of the middle class. The choice of focus on the urban middle class is particularly interesting because China has virtually no urban middle class. As of 2008 it was 0.7% of the population. Unlike in Western societies, where the consumption behavior of the urban middle class has important effects on culture and technological diffusion, such consumption is still a luxury in China and is largely uninfluenced by the urban middle class. Consider the state of vehicle ownership in China – private ownership accounts for less than 20% of vehicles owned in China, and the total number of 160 million vehicles is inflated by the fact that most of those are buses and taxis, and that many “privately owned” vehicles are actually collective purchases made by rural villages who the Party has seen as unfit for paved road access.

The three great revolutionary movements of the modern world (“other” three?) – those of the United States, France, and Soviet Union – weren’t really driven by the urban middle class. The urban middle class was integral to the success of the French and Bolshevik revolutions because urbanites happened to live and riot near centers of government power, but in all three cases revolutionary leaders were upper-class, wealthy intellectuals and statesmen. Despite Trotsky’s and Lenin’s pastoral beginnings, they appear to have never actually done a day of “middle class laboring” in their lives. In China, the upper class is comprised almost entirely of Party members, their families… or their patrons. Foreign Policy has a great piece here, but history and political science have a little to add to its assessment of the role of “class” in potential change in China.

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