Professor Wayne Moyer, from whom I took many an international politics class, was one of the best teachers I have ever had. He taught that revolutions typically come from the middle class, not from the poor, who are usually too busy worrying about putting food on the table to revolt. I thought of Professor Moyer today when I read Andrew Hupert’s post on DiligenceChina, entitled, China’s Fastest Growing Economic Component: The Expectations of the Chinese People. [link no longer exists]
Hupert starts by noting how China’s “economy has surpassed every rational hope and padded, overly exuberant estimate,” and then states “that’s how the trouble started:”
Because now China has a middle class – and two things are true about middle classes everywhere and every time.
1) The Middle Class wants more.
2) You screw with the Middle Class at your own peril.
Hupert believes China’s middle class wants “parity with Middle Classes all over the world:”
For centuries rank and file Chinese have been told that they are culturally, intellectually and spiritually superior to anyone else on the planet, and that the moment their day in the sun arrived they would take their proper place in the world. Well, their day is here. And they don’t want everything their international colleagues have – they expect it.
Though I agree with Hupert on this, we diverge on where the fault lines will be. Hupert sees the middle class creating two “sticky issues” for Beijing: education and media access. I agree these are two of Beijing’s most important issues for dealing with China’s middle class, but I do not see them as being among the most difficult.
Hupert rightly stresses that the Chinese “mania for educating their kids” is very real and he also rightly describes education as the “cornerstone” of the CCP’s plans to stay in power. Hupert sees the Party having the following three “pretty stark choices” for education:
1) Reform China’s entire educational system from the ground up – starting with kindergarten – to reflect the needs of an urban intellectual elite that the CCP doesn’t really trust in the first place.
2) Maintain a dual system – free public schooling for the masses and a free-wheeling system of elite private schools for the Princelings – often run by foreigners.
3) Ban or sharply curtail private schools and maintain the “level playing field” and control over education of the middle class.
Hupert sees the Party continuing to deal with education by using “some hodgepodge, slapped-together hybrid of conflicting rules and unenforced edicts.” I agree on this, but disagree it will brew up a middle class crisis. Indeed, this hodgepodge hybrid may actually be the best way to improve education for both wealthy urbanites and the rural poor, without explicitly moving from an education system nominally based on equality.
Access to media is Hupert’s other big middle class issue and he considers this a business issue:
When China was the Poor Man of Asia the government could justify a Stalinist information policy. But as Shanghai sharpies and the rest of China’s middle class get set to muscle their way in to foreign markets, lack of basic data is going to put them at a severe disadvantage. Chinese businessmen who have never seen a viral video on YouTube or read an editorial about western attitudes towards Tibet can still buy western brands and equipment – but they will have a considerably harder time selling their products or services overseas.
Again, I agree with Hupert that this is an important issue for Beijing, but again, I do not see this as creating major middle class problems, at least not for some time. Chinese business will increasingly need access to information, but my impression is that it is getting nearly all of the important stuff (for business) already.
What do you think?