Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

China’s Restive Middle Class Will Be Xi’s Greatest Test Yet

Middle-class people, it turns out, have limited patience for things like intrusive social monitoring and censorship of personal expression.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A man wears a protective mask and looks at his phone as he rests on a pedestrian bridge overlooking an expressway.
A man wears a protective mask and looks at his phone as he rests on a pedestrian bridge overlooking an expressway.
A man wears a protective mask as he rests on a pedestrian bridge overlooking an expressway in an area of Beijing where many communities were locked down and recently reopened due to COVID-19 outbreaks, on May 31. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

In September 1966, just months after Mao Zedong had launched the decade of extraordinary violent political purges and upheaval that became known as China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a lone college senior studying German at Beijing Foreign Studies University wrote to the country’s all-powerful leader deploring his new campaign of persecution of enemies real and imagined.

“The Cultural Revolution is no mass movement. It consists of a single man holding a gun to the heads of the people,” wrote Wang Rongfen, announcing her resignation in protest from the Communist Party’s Youth League, an almost unheard-of measure in her day. “As a member of the Communist Party, please think about what you are doing.”

Certain that her call would not be well received, Wang took one more step to amplify her dissent. She walked to a nearby pharmacy to purchase a potent insecticide and guzzled four bottles before lying down on the doorstep of the Soviet Embassy to await her death. The farewell note that she left in her pocket for the world to discover read, “Poor motherland, what have you become?”

In September 1966, just months after Mao Zedong had launched the decade of extraordinary violent political purges and upheaval that became known as China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a lone college senior studying German at Beijing Foreign Studies University wrote to the country’s all-powerful leader deploring his new campaign of persecution of enemies real and imagined.

“The Cultural Revolution is no mass movement. It consists of a single man holding a gun to the heads of the people,” wrote Wang Rongfen, announcing her resignation in protest from the Communist Party’s Youth League, an almost unheard-of measure in her day. “As a member of the Communist Party, please think about what you are doing.”

Certain that her call would not be well received, Wang took one more step to amplify her dissent. She walked to a nearby pharmacy to purchase a potent insecticide and guzzled four bottles before lying down on the doorstep of the Soviet Embassy to await her death. The farewell note that she left in her pocket for the world to discover read, “Poor motherland, what have you become?”

Rather than dying, Wang, whom I interviewed from her exile in Germany in 2006, was revived and eventually served more than 12 years in prison. Then, in early 1979, two women showed up unannounced where she was being detained and informed her that her conviction had been overturned.

In her time as a student under Mao, protests against the country’s political leadership or direction were exceedingly rare and just as perilous. But around the time of her release, that was changing. Deng Xiaoping’s return to prominence after years of disfavor and his rise to power as Mao’s successor in 1978 had themselves each been propelled by unusual protests.

The first of these came in early 1976, with the death of Zhou Enlai, one of Mao’s longest-standing associates. By that time, the Chinese public had grown deeply weary of the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps protective of his own status, Mao ordered low-key ceremonies to mark the death of Zhou. This angered many in Beijing, who turned out in huge numbers in Tiananmen Square to honor a man who had been seen as a steady and moderating hand, with some of them placing little bottles on the square. These symbolized their support for one of Zhou’s capable proteges, Deng—whose name, Xiaoping, sounds like “little bottle” in Chinese—to be allowed to run the country under Mao, whose health was visibly failing.

This spontaneous citizen action backfired in the short run. After the memorial gestures for Zhou gave way to serious clashes with security forces that prefigured the incomparably more famous protests at Tiananmen Square where hundreds of Chinese demonstrators were killed 13 years later, Deng was stripped of all of his remaining positions by the radical clique that held sway during Mao’s last months of life.

But it was another form of civic activism, not long afterward, that sealed his ascendance as the country’s leader. In late 1978, amid a rare debate over what direction the country should take, Beijing residents began to hang handwritten posters at a place that came to be known as Democracy Wall. Although the ideological range of statements was wide, most of the posters criticized the excesses of rule under Mao, with many writers demanding respect for “Four Freedoms,” which included freedom of speech and freedom of debate.

Deng cannily encouraged this sort of outpouring because it helped to undermine his rival in his ongoing power struggle with Mao’s designated successor, Hua Guofeng, whose best-known slogan proclaimed that he would seek to do whatever Mao would have done to rule the country. The moment Deng triumphed, though, he closed Democracy Wall down. And in 1979, the year that Wang Rongfen was released, the most famous poster writer, Wei Jingsheng—who had boldly called for democratization as a fifth freedom for Chinese and denounced Deng as a dictator—was arrested and held as a political prisoner until 1993.

In one of his essay’s most famous passages, Wei wrote: “We need no gods or emperors and we don’t believe in saviors of any kind. … We do not want to serve as mere tools of dictators with personal ambitions for carrying out modernization. We want to modernize the lives of the people. Democracy, freedom, and happiness for all are our sole objectives.”

Over the following years, well before the 1989 massacre of students and workers and innocent bystanders at Tiananmen, in a ferment that is largely forgotten by outsiders and even unknown to most young Chinese, Beijing and many other places in China saw wave after wave of political protests and demonstrations. But even the Tiananmen massacre did not stop the agitation. Indeed, one of the biggest protest events in the country’s history occurred in 1999, when the Chinese religious group Falun Gong responded to being banned by then-President Jiang Zemin by launching a protest movement that lasted more than a year and mounted demonstrations in countless Chinese localities.

This history is germane and especially worth recalling now because of the remarkable events in China last week, when citizens in Beijing and many other parts of the country took to the streets to denounce the government’s ultra-strict COVID-19 lockdown policies as well as, in many cases, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his stern brand of authoritarianism.

At the height of last week’s events, and in their aftermath, many have engaged in a kind of parlor game of expectations, assessing the likelihood that the protests could threaten Xi’s just-renewed and bolstered hold on power or force any other kind of political reckoning in China. The flip side of these questions has been whether, as most observers have eventually come to concede, the Chinese state would have the means—in terms of policing, video and digital surveillance, propaganda, and other methods—to discourage any prolongation of the challenge to its authority and to Xi’s suddenly flagging prestige.

In many ways, though, these are the wrong questions. There is a thickening thread that runs from the bold, individual action of the young dissident student, Wang, in the 1960s to now. When she wrote her letter denouncing Mao’s methods, Wang was as alone and isolated as an atom floating in a vast sea. That is not only because she lacked today’s familiar technological tools, social media and the like, to network with others. It is also because China back then had only the scant vestiges of a modern middle class, which is the sine qua non of any cohesive social movement aimed at imposing the consent of the governed, limiting arbitrary power of rulers, and institutionalizing a measure of democracy. The early period of Mao’s rule had been dedicated to a kind of class warfare aimed at rooting out the old middle class, which he denounced as bourgeois and therefore irrevocable class enemies of his revolution and dictatorship.

By the time of Deng’s ascension to power, there were no longer even vestiges of an economically based middle class. Look at the photographs of that era, and what is most remarkable is that nearly everyone is dressed identically, with the same narrow range of modest hairstyles, all straight and black. The stringently engineered erasure of social classes and resulting political and cultural conformity had been achieved after years of economic autarky, wars against private property and business, and struggle sessions—as unending waves of indoctrination and repression against supposed class enemies were called.

It was sheer desperation that forced the tens of thousands of people to turn the memorial to Zhou into a political protest. Chinese people yearned for very basic things: a degree of stability and predictability in their lives and a resumption of economic growth to lift them out of poverty. Yet beyond these elemental desires, without a middle class to speak of, the society was as hard to organize toward any coherent purpose as a sheet of sand, to use a venerable Chinese expression.

Since the 1980s, though, China has been on a very different course, one involving rapid change. It is no coincidence that the historically famous protests of that decade, including the democracy protests that culminated in the Tiananmen massacre, came at a time when China was rapidly opening to the world, privatizing business, and beginning to grow fast. That is why Deng inveighed against “spiritual pollution” from the outside world, as he dreamed of being able to welcome in an avalanche of foreign capital and technology while remaining unaffected by what he regarded as dangerous ideas—such as democracy—which he likened to unsanitary flies.

As impressive as the 1989 demonstrations at Tiananmen still seem, even in increasingly distant retrospect, the demands of students and workers for systemic change in China were ultimately probably as self-limiting as they were doomed by the Communist Party’s decision to violently suppress the demonstrations. That is because China only still had an embryonic middle class, one that was not broad, sturdy, or congruous enough to be the vehicle for a viable reform movement.

The two-plus-decade period from, say, the mid-1990s until now was a time of widespread buy-in in China to an unstated but generally understood social contract. Stay out of politics, and the Communist Party will offer you a chance at wealth and personal fulfillment. With almost all boats rising, and often rapidly so, the unstated corollary was that if you don’t make it to a much better station in life, the fault is your own.

This brings us to the present moment, and to an old order that is breaking down. The recent protests in China have been widely misunderstood or oversimplified as being largely about fatigue with the suffocating restrictions associated with Xi’s draconian zero-COVID policies. This fatigue surely exists, as did outrage over the deaths of 10 people in an apartment building in northwest China whom the public believes couldn’t flee or weren’t rescued quickly enough because of a lockdown. The bigger issue that underlies this recent crisis and will mark a decisive new phase in Chinese politics in coming years is the growth of a middle class that the Chinese government’s official statistics number at 400 million people.

With his obsessive eye toward security and control, Xi treated his first 10 years in power as an extended exercise in ever deeper intrusion into people’s lives, as systems of social monitoring, censorship of personal expression, and finally restriction of physical movement during the pandemic were steadily strengthened. As many societies have seen, middle-class people, it turns out, have limited patience for such things, even amid a prolonged health emergency.

Beyond this strong motif of discontent lies a potentially even more powerful one: The prospect of seemingly unlimited rapid growth and the rising boats that it produced for the last two generations of Chinese is over. Even well-educated young people are finding it much harder than those who preceded them to find stable, well-paying jobs. Pessimism is rife, and, amid a secular slowdown of a former economic juggernaut and what figures to be a crushing demographic crisis just commencing, uncertainty about the future is suddenly on everyone’s mind.

Xi’s instinct to further police society and intrude ever more deeply in the lives of citizens who, like middle-class people almost everywhere, relish things like privacy, personal discretion, a say in how things are run, and the freedom to vent runs against powerful historical currents.

The biggest challenges his leadership will face during his remaining time in power will not come from abroad, whether through competition or antagonism with the United States and other Western countries or the supposedly subversive ideas of theirs that Chinese leaders since Mao have always warned against.

His biggest test, paradoxically, will be how to accommodate a fruit of his society’s decades of success: the world’s largest middle class, and one that may be finally ready to come into its own.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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