Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China: the middle kingdom's middle way

August 14, 2008

Despite the Olympic spotlight on China, we hear little of the Chinese
Communist Party. To retain power and maintain stability, the party
knows it must accommodate the new consumerist middle classes. But it
has to balance carefully to avoid potential revolution by the many
left outside by the enormous changes in the nation
By Jean-Louis Rocca
Le Monde diplomatique
August 2008

The Chinese government has not much revamped its image recently,
given last October's National Congress of the Communist Party, the
disastrous handling of the Tibet troubles and this year's earthquake.
This top-down conservatism contrasts with wide social protest across
the nation. Protest is almost established practice in China today,
although this is not the result of social pressures outside the
party, but carried out by people and groups at the heart of the
system. This obliges analysts to think outside the usual political
frame of an all-powerful, unscrupulous regime versus a society that
is seen as static or on the brink of revolt.

Between 2002 and 2006, nearly 12 million people joined the Chinese
Communist Party or CCP (see "A middle-class party"). Why? For cadres
and government officials it is a way to get a position and build up a
power base. For others, motives vary. "It's a formality for me if I
want to climb the ranks," a teacher told me. In a leading university,
80% of the teaching staff are party members. Despite that, party
membership does not guarantee social mobility; a network of
relationships, professional success and wealth can do that just as efficiently.

Examples abound. A party secretary in a public institution waited
years for a promotion only to see his deputy, married to a
high-ranking cadre in another institution, promoted over his head,
despite a lack of professional qualifications. A rich businesswoman,
who was not a party member, succeeded in placing her son in the
senior management of a public enterprise. He had no qualifications,
although he spent three years in a foreign university.

For intellectuals, party membership provides leeway. According to a
journalist: "Being a party member gives you greater freedom of
speech." There is no paradox here. Party members have access to an
inner circle in which discussion is freer. That was a theme of the
party democratisation issue raised at the 17th Party Congress – which
might be empty rhetoric by a party that has failed to democratise
society, and so offers token liberalisation. However, there are
different realities behind the official party line, starting with the
discussions that began a few years ago in the party schools about a
"conservative democracy".

There is a great deal at stake: how can the party retain power
(personal interest) and maintain stability (collective interest)
while creating a space for expression and political choice? The
answer lies in the formation of intra-party trends, which will give a
voice to social classes. The CCP will always maintain its centralised
hold, but in the manner of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party after the
second world war, an example explicitly mentioned. Or possibly, as in
Europe and the United States, within a system controlled by two main
political parties who agree on the basic issues and ensure consensus
in conflict, and therefore stability. Democracy within an elite
circle would reform the regime and avoid political instability.

Party leaders have pursued this discussion since 2002. Their use of
slogans (harmonious society, clean wealth and, more recently, the
science of development) shows that they are taking account of the
demands of society. There have been concrete measures, such as the
limited but genuine extension of the social security system, a
reduction in the tax burden on farmers and a less brutal control of
migration and social movements.

Change is occuring behind the facade

Behind the static facade, a reforming gradualism is altering the
political balance. There is no question of organising elections in
the short or medium term. Party democratisation means limited
experiments that provide a narrow framework for reform. Just as the
controlled democracy granted to villages a few years ago is
restricted to internal village matters, so intra-party democracy
limits the space for discussion and protest to a select audience of
responsible individuals. It is a question of damage limitation.

The conservative democracy scenario does not seem much when compared
with the second democratic wave (after the second world war), or the
third (that of the former eastern European bloc). But it is possible
to compare it with the first democratic wave in western Europe. All
the 19th-century political debates concerned the contradictions
between democratisation (seen by the elite as inevitable and even
desirable), and the fears it provoked among the ruling classes.
Alexis de Tocqueville praised the people (honest reasonable
citizens), but held the populace in contempt (the crowd, the masses,
the revolutionaries). The major democratic systems grew out of a fear
of revolution, but a greater fear that bad leaders might be elected
(demagogues, and also ignorant and inexperienced leaders) long
prevented any radical change.

If fear of revolution is replaced with fear of social unrest, we have
the Chinese dilemma. The ruling elite is trying to find a formula for
a trouble-free democratisation that ensures "correct" leaders. "What
is more dangerous," asked a cadre in charge of village elections, "an
unstable society deprived of the vote (unstable in part because it
has no means of expression) or a society in chaos because it has the
vote?" The ruling classes and most party members are doing what they
can to avoid both pitfalls.

Democracy is often mocked, sometimes by the Chinese, but it is not an
empty threat. Beside social protest, or rather behind it, party
members are taking political action. Lawyers, deputies, civil
servants, teachers, entrepreneurs and heads of mass organisations
such as the All-China Women's Federation or the All China Federation
of Trade Unions, act in the media and in NGOs, as well as behind the
scenes in government, to defend underprivileged social classes. Some
inform newly arrived migrants of their rights (1) or publish articles
linking the protest movements to social injustice and the defence of
civil rights. Others support or even finance initiatives to help the
poor or those whose homes have been expropriated, or defend national
heritage, or promote the redistribution of profit.

Recently, some public figures have supported associations of
co-owners who have been the victims of embezzlement by property
developers and unscrupulous building managers with connections in
local government. What is at stake is the important issue of
recognising the rights of the middle classes to enjoy that
cornerstone of their aspirations: property ownership. Now the large
Beijing high-rise housing projects can elect their own
representatives. Local authorities have been quick to find ways of
making these elections ineffective, but the reform marks the
recognition ?of homeowners' rights.

Several journalists have denounced scandals relating to pollution or
the treatment of migrant workers or farmers, or the plight of
city-dwellers who have lost their homes. This new activism owes a
great deal to a rigid elitist party membership faced with young
people, business people and graduates (see "A middle-class party").

These "reformists" are not revolutionaries or dissidents, but they do
share a militant past. They are in their fifties and most lived
through the major Maoist upheavals, such as the Cultural Revolution
and the movement to send educated youth to the countryside, as well
as periods of opposition, especially 1979 and 1989. They have long
mastered the official jargon as well as ways of disputing it; but
having experienced crackdowns, have no desire to be sacrificed again.
They can be found in all areas of government and sometimes have
surprising affinities with the arts or government, education or
business, because their paths crossed in the Maoist era.

Take Zhang, once an educated young man sent into the countryside, who
is now director of the administrative offices of a major
municipality. He has remained close friends with a well-known artist
with whom he spent three years in Mongolia. Or ?a former Red Guard
turned businessman, who is ?a close friend of one of his former
adversaries. All these people have a certain empathy, share similar
responses and a common language. "Most of us have discarded the myth
of revolution as well as a belief in democracy and elections," one
told us. "That is all dangerous stuff, we need to find a middle way."

Their own experience has led them to democratic conservatism, and a
belief that political reform means evolving towards a process that
guarantees order and the reproduction of the elite, but with a strong
dose of social mobility. They toe the party line but support a
reinforcement of the legal system, especially to guarantee the
fundamental rights of the disadvantaged: those whose homes or land
have been expropriated, exploited migrants, that segment of the urban
population which has lost out in the economic reforms, home owners
battling against property companies, or residents protesting against
air pollution and dirty water.

They want to find legal channels for expressing their discontent and
they teach people to use lawful means of protest against unscrupulous
businesses and corrupt bureaucracies. Social classes (such as
landowners, the expropriated, the poor, migrants) must assert
themselves by protecting their rights (weiquan).

None of these "reformers" will risk stepping out of line. The
revolutionary era is over, they say, do not interfere in politics.
They will do anything to avoid direct confrontation with the regime.
That choice is not purely tactical, since many of them are part of
the system and belong to the social categories that have most
benefited from the economic reforms: technicians, managers of major
companies, business people and teachers. Like their leaders, they
promote stability and are afraid of losing their hard-won privileges,
which are all the more valuable since they came so late. Their
actions show courage but require discretion – for their status (if
not their freedom) depends on it.

The results of their actions are meagre, but important. The image of
migrant workers has considerably improved in popular opinion and it
is now rare for them not to be paid. More people are taking legal
action and there is more awareness of pollution. Homeowners' rights
are considered legitimate. These may be modest achievements but they
far exceed anything achieved by outright dissidence, which has little
popular support and runs the risk of severe repression.

This reformist trend has its enemies but they ?are not in government,
nor are they party members. They are individuals within the
administration, business and universities who want to continue
milking the system but refuse to provide ?a framework (legal, formal,
legitimate) for ?their prerogatives. They have yet to learn that if
they want to hold on to their privileges, government methods must
evolve and integrate all of society's aspirations.
Appearance of a middle class

The emergence of new social strata, gathered in that nebulous
category, the middle class, forms another piece in the political
jigsaw. This new class includes many communists who now have enough
income to buy a home and car and to travel. But their political
stance is ambivalent. They are critical of wealth accumulated by
bribery or through the privileges (tequan) of family connections,
while they depend on their own merit and salaries, which are heavily
taxed. Yet they favour improved legal protection of property and
greater freedom of speech and association.

They are opposed to elections, which they view as a potential source
of social tensions, violence and political fragmentation. Their view
may be summed up as "Who can say that elected leaders will be any
better than the people governing China today?". Members of this new
middle class stress the importance of migrant workers' contribution
to current prosperity and support measures to improve their living
conditions. But they also insist on the need to "civilise" those
peasants before granting them urban citizenship (2).

The new political context is a response to the major contradictions
in contemporary Chinese society. The frenzied pace of growth with its
consequent social problems has generated frustrations and desires
that cannot be satisfied by economic growth alone. The eternal
promise of a better future is no longer enough; people want guarantees.

The political trends that have emerged since the 1990s do not provide
an adequate response. The return to tradition in the form of
neo-Confucianism is hardly in line with economic growth and is at
odds with the desire to experiment with new lifestyles.

The groups and individuals that make up China's "new left" advocate a
national renewal, but their desire to re-collectivise the economy and
return to social egalitarianism does not attract a population hooked
on the pleasures of consumerism. As for political liberalism, both
the intellectuals and the Chinese man on the street feel that smacks
of Tiananmen-type chaos.

The new reformist current has a different viewpoint. It does not
promote a recipe from the past or from outside China, but seeks a
solution to the stalemate caused by economic growth. Its proponents
believe that social discontent is on the rise because it has no
legitimate channels of expression. Social advancement is paralysed.
If a downturn in the economy were to deprive people of their faith in
a better future, their frustrations could result in political meltdown.

According to the sociologist Chen Yingfang, "if an urban middle
class, with a capacity for legal action and a political rationale,
does not have the means to defend its interests efficiently, or if
the government systematically prevents it from doing so by using the
law or political action, or even ?by threats and violence, then
citizens may decide on revolutionary action. That is a more costly
option in terms of social subversion and political risk" (3).

To ward off this danger, the new reformists suggest that the
scattered social movements and associations involved in the protests
should unite. Together they could alter the flow of social mobility
without stepping into the political arena. That would entail forcing
the state, and especially local administrations, to adopt social
policies and laws. A former professor, now a businessman, told me:
"Society is the only force that can modernise the country and expand
the scope for liberty and social justice."

This tactic fits in with recent analyses by economists who want to
boost domestic demand by increasing the revenues of the least
favoured segment of the population and protecting their standard of
living in order to stimulate consumption. Understandably, that
argument finds favour with the leadership. A society that feels
understood, with modernised institutions, would maintain the status quo.

Such a project is hardly revolutionary and would bypass any issue of
regime change while reinforcing the CCP. It establishes a close
connection between political options and individual interests, it
preserves both adventurism and repression while leaving a space for
social issues.

And, undeniably, that fits in with sociological evolution. The most
active social strata, the middle class, may be vocal in defending its
interests, but it is not advocating any brutal change to the political system.

However, the strategy of circumventing the political sphere (not
touching the cornerstone of power) by means of the social sphere
(respecting individual rights and social justice) is not without pitfalls.

Defending rights does not guarantee ?the same treatment for all. The
law is the product of political struggle. The middle class would have
the necessary legitimacy, if only because they ?are consumers, to
become the pillars ?of this conservative democracy. Disadvantaged
social classes, such as the migrants, would have trouble making their
voices heard and might be tempted by more revolutionary action.

There is another potential obstacle: resistance to change by local
bureaucracies and part of the top echelons of government. The
exploitation of migrants and land control generate such substantial
profits that it may not be easy for central government to reform
current practices.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank