A Major Misconception About China

Many well-known China experts have expressed the notion that the Chinese middle class, having experienced years of steady economic growth, will suddenly demand rights, freedom, and democracy, resulting in a revolution and toppling of the Communist Party. It is also widely believed that people will care less about official statistics (which in many cases appear fictional) and more about the quality of their lives and the type of government they have. Such a prognostication has been circulating for 20 years now, at least with respect to China. Meanwhile, the Chinese middle class (which can alternatively be called bourgeoisie) remains quiet, barely showing any visible intention to demand political reforms from below. No doubt, it would be great if the ruling party sooner or later realized the need for political reforms and started to incrementally introduce them. However, for the most part, the Chinese middle class has opted for wait-and-see tactics in anticipation of political reforms from above.

Here is why. The Chinese bourgeoisie encompasses well-educated and fairly well-off people (annual per capita GDP in Shanghai, for instance, was around $20,000 as of last year). They tend to carefully observe world trends and have witnessed examples of how so-called “democracies” work – both in neighboring countries such as Thailand, and in older “traditional” democracies such as the United States. To be more precise, in Thailand a “democratically elected” prime minister has finally been overthrown by the military. In Venezuela, the local middle class is also protesting against their “democratically elected” leaders. People are fed up with democracies that in reality bring populists like  Shinawatra and Maduro into power. As a result, the middle class goes out in the streets with the demand to undo a democratic voting system that benefits a parasitizing majority and exploits a working minority. The Chinese bourgeoisie looks at the United States and sees political leaders like Kilpatrick in Detroit, DeBlasio in New York, Baraka in Newark, who, although not as extreme as Shinawatra or Maduro, are quite populist. Essentially, America, a traditional democratic state, appears to be moving in the same populist direction, discrediting the idea of democracy in Chinese eyes..

In other words, the Chinese middle class can clearly observe what happens to democracies, populists systematically win elections, and thus they project potentially similar results for their country. With equality and “social justice” on their campaign banners, populist politicians promise to extract more money from the rich (who, by and large, earn the money) and then hand it out to the poor. As a result, those who work and earn money constitute a minority nowadays, whereas those who don’t work (including such categories as the unemployed, students, and retirees) have now become a majority. This majority, in turn, votes for more wealth expropriation and ever more generous handouts, demanding their “fair share,” often as reparations for prior oppression and exploitation. From the perspective of its domestic affairs, China itself is far from being perfectly calm and peaceful. Chinese peasants continue rioting against forceful confiscation of their lands by private and state actors. Chinese peasants revolt and demand higher wages too. Meanwhile, the Chinese bourgeoisie, however, does not seem to share their revolutionary sentiments, so far.

Hence the question – why would Chinese people fight for democracy as it is currently practiced (not merely as a theoretical construct)? Why would we expect that democracy in China will be any different from the aforementioned examples of both old and young democratic states? True, the ruling Communist party is obsolete and inefficient; true, the bureaucratic machine is cumbersome and hard to deal with; true, the regime overall is corrupt. Nevertheless, the Сhinese middle class believes that, for all its flaws, the current regime is stable; it is better to be ruled by the Chinese aristocracy, in the form of the Communist Party, than it is to be ruled by a crowd of hungry and illiterate peasants. Moreover, President Xi Jinping has made it clear that the country’s new administration is serious about leading China towards the market economy and has already taken notable steps in that direction. The bottom line of this story is clear: if you want to wreck 36 years of economic progress for rich and poor alike, let China’s 500 million peasants vote for another Mao.