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Will a Growing Chinese Middle Class Bring About Change in China?

By Lu Qingshuang and Guo Rou
The Epoch Times
Aug 13, 2005

He Qinglian in her studio in 2004 (The Epoch Times)
High-resolution image (640 x 480 px, 300 dpi)

On July 22, the forum “A Closer Look into China: Nine Commentaries Triggers Mass Resignations from the CCP” was held at the National Press Club in Washington DC. Questions and answers followed the presentations. One person expressed the belief that China’s economic development would lead to a larger middle class, which could lead China towards democracy. People from all walks of life, including the Taiwanese, are hopeful of that prospect.

However, renowned social economist He Qinglian said that when she was in school, she had similar views, but after years of research and observation, she discovered that this was merely the “bait” the CCP uses to promote China abroad.

She believes that the Chinese middle class has three characteristics that make it different from other countries. The wealth of a middle class is related to political power. However, China’s middle class has no group consciousness and therefore has no independent ideas, and it has no way or ability to express itself in public affairs. This makes the middle class dependent on political power, and it cannot initiate or promote political reforms in the short term.

She said, “This view is not limited to today. It has been this way in China for over 20 years; however, observers have been pointing this out since the reforms began. In the 1980’s, when I was studying at the university, I believed this too. But, according to my research and observations in the years following, I found that this way of thinking does not fit China. In the late 1990’s I wrote many articles regarding this issue.” He Qinglian makes her case from three perspectives:

China's middle class and its relationship to political power

The creation and growth of China’s middle class is closely related to the Party’s political power. At present, the four modernized cities and some provincial capitals with some high tech and emerging industries are where white-collar jobs are a bit more removed from the political power. Elsewhere in China, the middle class usually works for government or state-owned monopoly enterprises. They represent the majority of middle class workers in the country. This includes some who are outstanding in technology and depend on their own personal connections with local government officials for their wealth and profit. This point is even clearer in the real estate business.

China’s middle class does not have a group consciousness

In western society, the term “middle class,” especially in a social sense, not only has financial implications, but also has political and social implications. The financial standard is only one of the requirements; group consciousness is another. In China, because of the dependency on political power, it is impossible for the middle class to have an independent identity. Without group consciousness, the middle class is not aware of its common needs or desires.

The middle class lacks the means or ability to participate in public affairs

The CCP has not given the Chinese middle class any way to participate in public affairs. They cannot form their own representative organizations, and they cannot speak out on public issues through these organizations.

This is unlike Hong Kong’s middle class that successfully voiced its opposition to Article 23 through organizations that include the unions representing attorneys, teachers, and reporters. Non-governmental organizations brought together these segments of society and expressed the groups’ demands. In China, there is no such vehicle or ability of expression.

With the recent changes in the CCP’s corporate laws, associations were even more strictly limited in their activities than before. Without the ability and means to participate in public affairs, the Chinese middle class doesn’t even know that it exists, or even that it has the common desire to participate in change.

He Qinglian concluded by saying that when discussing a class of people, we need to determine whether they have group consciousness and the ability to participate in public issues. If this class of people is merely classified by a financial standard but lacks group consciousness, we cannot say that the Chinese middle class has come of age. If middle class dependence on political power increases in the short term, there will be no political reform in China.

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