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 middlef classes. But it has to balance carefully to avoid potential revolution by the many left outside by the enormous changes in the nation.
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. 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 per cent 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 democratization issue raised at the 17th Party Congress – which might be empty rhetoric by a party that has failed to democratize society, and so offers token liberalization. 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 centralized 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.
Behind the static facade, a reforming gradualism is altering the political balance. There is no question of organizing elections in the short or medium term. Party democratization 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 control.
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 democratization (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 democratization 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 organizations 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 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 recognizing 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 meager, 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.
The new political context is a response to the major contradictions in contemporary Chinese society. The frenzied pace of growth with 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-collectivize 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 paralyzed. 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”.
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 modernize 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 modernized 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.
Jean-Louis Rocca is a researcher at the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales (CERI-Sciences-po) in Beijing and author of La condition chinoise (Paris, Karthala, 2006) and La Chine vue par ses sociologues(Paris, Presse de Sciences-Po, 2008)
Translated by Krystyna Horko
This article appears in the August edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com The full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.