The rise of the middle class and China's democratization

December 20, 2016 10:55
A group of Chinese tourists in Tokyo's Ginza district. A fundamental change in the political values of the middle class is possible, and it could be driven not by economic motives but by foreign cultural influence. Photo: Bloomberg

In view of its rapid economic growth over the past few decades, China has witnessed the rise of a new social class: the middle class.

The overwhelming majority of them are living in big cities, working either as high-ranking party and government officials, or senior management in state-owned enterprises and utilities.

They also include high-income managers working with local or foreign private companies, young entrepreneurs, and self-employed professionals such as lawyers.

But by and large, the majority of China's middle class still come from the public sector.

According to modern western theories, the middle class often play a pivotal role in the democratization and liberalization of society.

It is because the well-off and highly educated middle class have relatively smaller political influence and lesser economic resources than the ruling class.

Therefore, in order to defend their civil rights and personal property against any infringement by the powerful ruling class, the middle class often favor a more egalitarian and democratic political system.

Besides, compared to the grass roots, the middle class are mostly more educated and have more leisure time, thereby allowing them to actively take part in pro-democratization movements.

As Professor Francis Fukuyama of the Stanford University has pointed out in his book, Political Order and Political Decay, with the size and influence of the Chinese middle class continually on the rise, they may one day also lean toward democratization like their western counterparts did, and eventually facilitate fundamental social and political changes in China.

However, according to the study results published by Professor Chen Jie of the State University of New York in his book A Middle Class Without Democracy, the Chinese middle class may not follow the same historical pattern as their western counterparts.

On the contrary, instead of becoming more pro-democracy, the Chinese middle class may even align themselves more with the Communist dictatorship.

Despite the fact that Chen's study was conducted back in 2008, and the Chinese middle class might already have gone through remarkable progress since then, he said it appears their stance on democracy hasn't changed much.

That said, Chen believes that at least in the short run, China is unlikely to undergo any drastic political transformation, because the values and political views of the middle class have remained largely unchanged.

Based on the impression I have got from dealing with mainland middle-class students and academics over the years, I believe Chen's prediction is logical.

However, in the long run, Chen said that there are still variables as far as the democratization process in the mainland is concerned.

For example, the middle class, particularly those coming from the public sector, are mostly in favor of the current one-party rule system because the continuation of their economic benefits and affluent lives largely depends on the stability of the current regime.

However, once the current regime can no longer guarantee their high incomes and well-off lives, or there is any large-scale and unexpected political or economic turbulence in the mainland, then in order to protect their wealth and property, it is very likely that their stance towards democracy and support for the current regime may change suddenly and drastically.

On the other hand, in my opinion, Chen may also have overlooked one important factor in his forecast of China's political future, which is, a possible fundamental change in the political values of the middle class, which is not driven by economic motives but by foreign cultural influence as a result of globalization.

As western values such as freedom and democracy have been gradually infiltrating almost every aspect of daily life in China through popular culture and the internet, it is likely that these new ideas may serve as a catalyst for a profound change of attitude among the affluent middle class, thereby bringing forward drastic political transformation in the mainland.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 19.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong