The enormous chasm in today’s China between the rich, privileged classes and the masses of poor could destabilize the nation, a prominent Chinese scholar has warned.
Professor Zheng Yongnian, the director of the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute and author of many books and journal articles on Chinese Communist Party politics, gave the caution in a Sept. 28 article in the pro-China Hong Kong-based broadcaster Phoenix Television.
Despite China’s rapid economic growth, he said, the gap between the rich and the poor cannot be easily closed because social classes have ossified into two stratums—Party officials and the wealthy on one level, and the masses without power or influence on another.
Those in the former group have not only kept a monopoly of China’s power and riches, they have also passed on their prosperity within their ranks to their descendants. This prevents the nation’s wealth from freely circulating among the different social classes, giving rise to what Zheng dubs a “castle” phenomenon, with Chinese officials and the rich on the inside, and the rest on the outside looking in.
Worse, there are “walls everywhere between social groups within and outside the castle,” which contributes to the “decline of social morality and the distrust among social groups,” according to Zheng.
China rocketed from a poor country to one of the world’s largest economies in 30 years, but unsolved social problems could be its downfall, he said.
“Definitely, China is now faced with the danger of societal disorder.”
Zheng identified three areas that could precipitate disorder: Widening income disparity, an ossified social class, and a lack of societal safety nets.
While Zheng acknowledged that China’s “reform and opening up”—the economic reform policies initiated by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s—had “greatly improved” the lives of most Chinese, the present income disparity between the wealthy and the poor is so huge that “members of society do not feel satisfied with their better lives.”
In fact, “many societal problems today stem from” the income disparity, Zheng argues.
Zheng said that while China’s income disparity hasn’t reached a critical stage, the Chinese authorities do not have enough safety nets in place to prevent the very poor from slipping through the cracks.
Protecting society, he writes, requires a comprehensive system “where social security, medical care, education, and housing” are provided to every single member of society.
“The problem with China today is not that certain peoples or places are getting wealthy,” he said, “but that the government has failed to protect the people and places that have yet to get rich, and particularly the most vulnerable groups in society.”