According to Mao, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. To him, a nation filled with Mao-suit clad workers— proletarian “blue ants” with heads down and mouths shut—was the embodiment of the Communist dream. The “masses,” under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), would drown the bourgeois oppressors in a “sea of revolutionary red” and usher China into utopia.
However, after Deng Xiaoping pointed out that “shared pauperism” was not exactly utopia, and China began to turn toward the market, the Chinese people began to cast aside their monochromatic sameness and put on a multicolored coat—both in thought and in lifestyle. New and colorful hues are now emerging across the middle of the spectrum—the rainbow colors of Chinese-style “market Leninism.” These xiao kang, the “newly well-off” of the middle class, are neither poor nor rich; estimates of their numbers range from 100 million to over 200 million people, increasing by 20 percent per year.
In China, having a “comfortable life” means having an annual household income around US$14,000 in contrast to annual average rural incomes of $300 or urban incomes of $850. Such households constitute the low end of the middle spectrum. The upper end includes those with $60,000, still considered in the middle when contrasted with Chinese entrepreneurs like Rong Zhijian, named by Forbes Global Magazine in 2002 as the richest man in China, with personal wealth estimated at $850 million.
Being a part of the middle class means enjoying such amenities as nice living quarters, stylish clothes, color TV (Chinese-made), a personal computer, CD or DVD player, cell phone, and family vacation (though perhaps not abroad)—amenities that make life more comfortable, regardless of the political environment. Their cravings are not all material ones, however. They are also wrestling with moral and spiritual issues as they explore religions, new and old, and blow out the barriers of sexual restraint.
The very thought that there is a middle class in China makes the political leadership highly uncomfortable. For one thing, the middle class has no legitimacy within Communist ideology. According to Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought, after the revolution there should be no class polarization, only the proletariat, the “people,” led by the Party as their sole representative. During the 1960s, anyone showing any manifestation of bourgeois aspiration—such as a foreign language or a Christian cross or even eyeglasses—was labeled an “enemy of the people.” Although Deng Xiaoping salvaged some space for income inequality and differences in lifestyle by allowing that China was only in the “initial stages” of building socialism, discussions about the middle class are still very controversial in China. Dialogue participants must refer to this group as “middle income,” “white collar,” “entrepreneurs,” or “businessmen.” Thus class terminology is replaced by more politically neutral terms of occupational strata, as set forth in the 2002 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). This study reported that Chinese society now includes ten occupational categories: state and social administrators; (enterprise) managers; private business owners; professional and technical personnel; office staff; self-employed business people; commercial and service staff; industrial workers; agricultural workers; and the unemployed and semi-employed.
There is a second reason why the CCP is nervous and considers the emerging middle class a potential threat to their continued one-party rule. Western development theory holds that as people gain increased material comforts, they will begin to demand social and political comforts, that is freedoms—and these the Party is not willing to meet. At a minimum, they will want laws to protect their new property, and they will want their opinions to be heard and heeded by the ruling Party.
Others, though, including China’s “new conservatives,” predict that China’s middle class will agree to maintain the status quo and allow the CCP to continue its rule in exchange for the security to enjoy their material comforts. Lu Xueyi, a leading sociologist at CASS and editor of the 2002 occupational strata report, believes that the middle class is likely to identify with the ruling party’s ideology and policies. It follows then, according to Lu, that “the larger the proportion of citizens with medium-level income, the more stable a particular country will be.”
The bottom line is that the Party must find a way to live with the middle class, because consumer spending is imperative to spur the economic growth and job creation essential for continued CCP rule.
The Rhetoric and Reality of Co-optation and Control
The Party is dealing with the (re)emerging middle class in a similar manner as it had attempted in the early 1950s—striving to co-opt and control them (and their resources). The methods are well established: the Party designates a link—a government and/or quasi-governmental agency—as the sole channel through which a specific social group can express its interests and concerns, and through which the Party can be the sole and final arbiter of those interests (such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs and “patriotic” religious associations for the religious sector).
Carrying out this “united front” approach with the resurrected economic elites, though, has demanded some adjustments of political theory. On July 1, 2001, in a speech to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, Jiang Zemin, then General Secretary of the CCP, announced that private entrepreneurs could be eligible to join the Party—a thought only remotely tethered to original Communist dogma. In Leninist theory, the Party represents the industrial workers. This theory was adapted by Mao to include peasants and soldiers, and then adapted again by Deng Xiaoping to include intellectuals as “thought workers.” By introducing his concept of the “Three Represents,” Jiang stretched this mental rubber band to the limits. He stated that the CCP should represent all “advanced productive forces” (read, the private entrepreneurs/capitalists as well as the professional elites), in addition to “advanced culture,” (read, science and technology), and the “interests of the majority.”
CASS’s 2002 occupational strata study, the first official documentation of the new pluralism in Chinese society, was an effort at least in part to justify Jiang’s “trial balloon” regarding bringing entrepreneurs and other middle strata into the Party. But his speech sparked criticism among more traditional politicians causing Jiang to openly rebuke his critics and close down journals that had published their articles. It was also received warily by the progressive educated strata who recognized the not-coincidental corollary: only the CCP can represent advanced social forces.
The goal of the “Three Represents” was to invite entrepreneurs and professionals into the political elite and then, through them, to infiltrate the nonstate sectors. The operation of business associations for these purposes is the focus of current regime interest. The three largest associations are the Self Employed Laborer’s Association (for small businesses with small numbers of workers), the Private Entrepreneurs’ Association (for slightly larger businesses), and the Industrial and Commercial Federation (which includes the largest ventures). In addition, there are associations for specific professions, such as the (national) All China Lawyers’ Association or the Shanghai Bar Association. Party and government officials oversee these associations, and the offices of the associations are often located in Party or government office buildings. It is through these associations that the professions and business interests are to express their concerns to the Party and the government and allow the Party to resolve the issues as the Party deems best.
With the business elite in the Party, the door is open for the Party to establish branches within individual businesses, including foreign-owned businesses in China and Chinese owned businesses abroad. With Party members in management, the Party has more opportunity to control decision-making—much more so than if the Party only had members among the workers. Workers are not allowed to form viable unions or other representative bodies, so their ability to influence decisions in the upper echelons of management is quite limited.
The need for inclusion in the Party is not all one-sided. Many Party members are leaving state jobs for the private sector and need a rationale to retain their Party membership. Given that the playing field is not yet level in China, many business owners feel that it is only by being in good graces with the Party, being close to the Party, indeed, being a part of the Party that they can get the necessary allowances— from registration to credit to property use rights—they need to succeed in their business efforts.
Adjusting as the Spectrum Changes
The “Three Represents” is the Party’s awkward acknowledgment that the middle class is vital for China’s survival and strength. This raises interesting possibilities as to what might happen if the government were to become less nervous about Christian believers and acknowledge the contribution they make to society. Would the Party be willing to do away with its rule that Party members be atheists? (Of course, all “patriotic” religious groups are led by secret party members, but changing this rule would allow for open membership by genuine believers.)
Just as the Party must adjust to growing social pluralism, so must the “color” of Christian ministry keep up with the new variety of hues. We must follow the example of the Apostle Paul who said, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” As Randy Kluver suggests and Chan and Yamamori illustrate in this journal issue, believers can find creative ways to reach and minister to the entrepreneurs and professionals—the IT engineers, advertising agents, realtors, financial advisors, industrial and service managers, medical personnel, educators, lawyers, NGO leaders and so on. Success or failure in this endeavor will make all the difference for whether the Chinese church is central or marginal in society and in the nature of that rapidly-changing society. The middle class will determine the degree of civil or “uncivil” society in China, and only as they are leavened with the gospel of Christ will there be any hope of stability, health, and strength in the civil sector.
Image credit: Dad, do I have to go? by DaiLuo via Flickr.
Carol Lee Hamrin, Ph.D., serves as a research professor at George Mason University and a senior associate with the Global China Center. She served under five U.S. administrations as the senior China research specialist in the U.S. Department of State and in 2003 received the Center for Public Justice Leadership …View Full Bio