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Home  /  Inside China  /  The Chinese Middle Class - Agents of Change or Harmony?
The Chinese Middle Class - Agents of Change or Harmony? print version
There are different predictions among scholars concerning the prospects of the Chinese political system, though most people agree that the Chinese middle-class is a good representative of present and future trends. While some see the growing autonomy of the middle class as an indicator of the limitation of state power and the rise of a civil society, other scholars regard the middle-class as an agent of political stability and a loyal partner of the Chinese state.
Many scholars agree that the since the beginning of the reform era (1979) China is gradually becoming less totalitarian and that by the development of a market economy the Chinese government is relaxing its control of many social domains. But scholars are deeply divided when it comes to defining the current political system in China and the direction it is marching to, in terms of government authority, democratization, the formation of a civil society, and the role of the middle class.

In one dimension, there is an evident balance between the control level of the Communist Party and the more practical economic needs. Logistically, China's economy cannot grow without private forces, international private cooperation and accumulation of foreign advance knowledge. The Chinese government allows such activities for economic puposes and for legitimizing China in the eyes the international community.

On a different level, the Chinese government remains a strong system that still has the potential to supervise local governments, maintains some important state industries, keeps a close eye on the media and often encourages certain social groups to actively engage in projects or activities which have the ultimate goal of strengthening the Chinese state.

A social group which receives the focus of attention of many social scientists is the Chinese urban middle class. The growth rate of the Chinese middle class, its consumption habits and cosmopolitan aspirations seem to be very representatives of changes taking place in the Chinese society. From managing private enterprises, forming a new generation of mainland scholars or establishing connections with foreigners overseas, many observers can't help seeing the middle-class as an antithesis to the conservative communist regime. Furthermore, new NGO's and community activities are also often associated with the middle class, reinforcing the idea that this class is inevitably promoting a civil society and democratization, in a quite similar way to what has been experienced in many Western states.

Italian political scientist Luigi Tomba presents a different perspective, claiming that such democratization course doesn't exist in China. Not only the middle class cannot be regarded as an agent of such trend, but, according to Tomba, it shouldn't even be seen as a force that the Chinese leadership needs to overcome in order to maintain its hegemony. Most middle class members see themselves as strongly linked to two main discourses initiated by the Chinese government and by this they see their moral-social responsibility (Tomba chooses intentionally to focus on the moral side and not the economic aspect) in preserving the current order. The middle class, due to its level of education, residence, values and financial skills, represents 'high quality' and should serve an example for those who cannot govern themselves (zizhi) and need to improve. The middle class also responds to the discourse of harmony hexie, which party chairman Hu Jintao stressed in a 2005 speech. Middle class citizens are required to assist in maintaining a hexie shehui (harmonious society), where dissolving social tensions and directing other social groups to do so as well.

Tomba witnesses the commitment of the middle class in undertaking the social responsibility designated to them by the state through certain initiatives: Newly established Community Committees (shequ weiyuanhui) which are often governed by middle class members and shaped to reflect their rising status and ethics, newly constructed urban spaces and residential compounds which represent middle class lifestyles, as well as the long term involvement of the middle class in the construction of China's social and economic development strategies, thus making a the middle class a faithful 'partner' of the state.

The ideas reflected by Tomba are important in terms of lighting up several forces in the complex state-middle class dynamics. In addition to the apparatus he describes, there are some patriotic and historical-traditional elements which lead the middle class to prioritize the overall benefit of the nation under the communist leadership. As Tomba states, the result seems to serve the development of China, but this doesn't necessarily mean that other individual-centered values do not shape the moral compass of the middle class sees in addition to ideas of 'population quality' and 'social harmony'.

Assisting source:  Tomba, L. 2009. "Of Quality, Harmony, and Community: Civilization and the Middle Class in Urban China." positions: east asia cultures critique 17 (3): 592-616.

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