Date
23 July 2018
Soon after a big fire in Beijing last month, the authorities in the Chinese capital began to evict thousands of migrant workers from their homes. Photo: Xinhua
Soon after a big fire in Beijing last month, the authorities in the Chinese capital began to evict thousands of migrant workers from their homes. Photo: Xinhua

Rethinking society’s relationship with the underclass

“Low class” has recently become a hot topic in China, only that it is not used to refer to a market or a product but a group of people.

Soon after a big fire in Beijing last month, the authorities in the Chinese capital began to evict thousands of migrant workers from their homes.

Claiming the move was aimed at eliminating potential security risks, the authorities called them “low class people” in a document.

Using such language to describe them is ironic since the Chinese Communist Party has been promoting socialism that stresses social ownership and claiming the country is led by the working class.

It is widely known that migrant workers, or those who move to cities for better wages, have been the main source of China’s cheap labor for its urban modernization and industrial development.

However, they are not treated the same as those with local household registrations when it comes to wages or social protections but face all kinds of exploitation and discrimination.

According to sociological theory, “low class people”, or underclass as described by academics, are blamed for social problems.

They are also seen to deserve whatever problems they face because being in the underclass means they are not “normal”.

This kind of prejudice in society is tantamount to drawing a line between “we” and “they”, “high class” and “low class”, and “insiders” and “outsiders”.

But one must realize that the underclass is just like you and me. They have their own ways of living and handling the challenges in a highly asymmetric society in terms of resources and power.

As such, what society should do is stop treating the underclass as “they” and reconnect with them.

Taiwanese anthropologist Chiao Chien once said in his book: “The underclass have long been part of the traditional Chinese society and an important basis for the Chinese social class system.

“It is impossible to understand the true face of the traditional Chinese society, interactions among different social classes, and how society operates without understanding the underclass.”

Although Hong Kong does not use “underclass” to describe the underprivileged, similar phrases are still used from time to time.

We should not only prevent the incidents mentioned above from happening but should also seriously think about our relationship with people at the bottom of our society.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 8

Translation by Taka Liu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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TL/JC/RA

Legislative Council member

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