Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Opinion - China's middle class rising and governance

The Rise of the Middle Class in China

International Herald Tribune

Monday, January 21, 2008

Shanghai is famous for many things, from its eye-catching architecture to its historic role linking China to the world. But within the People's Republic of China, the city also is revered for its central role in 20th-century protests.

In the early 1900s, Shanghai workers staged some of China's first strikes. The Cultural Revolution began in Beijing in 1966 with the Red Guards but peaked in the Shanghai uprising of 1967, when revolutionary groups took over the city government and the Communist Party Committee. And though the great upheaval of 1989's Beijing Spring is rightly associated with Tiananmen Square, the student-led protests that paved the way for that epochal struggle took place two and a half years earlier, in Shanghai's People's Square.

This is worth remembering in light of what's been happening lately in China's largest city. For the last two weekends, protesters opposed to plans to extend the city's fastest-on-earth magnetic levitation train - the maglev - have taken to the streets in marches that organizers dubbed "collective walks" to avoid seeming too controversial when confronting a regime that often deals harshly with acts of dissent.

The maglev, which can rocket passengers at speeds well over 200 miles per hour, currently connects the Pudong airport at the eastern edge of the metropolis to a nearby subway station. The authorities want it to do much more. The first extension in the works would link Pudong's new airport to the old Hongqiao airport west of the city.

This has angered residents of some largely middle-class neighborhoods through which the new rail line would run. They claim that the path of noisy maglev trains would make their property values plummet and disturb the tranquility of their homes.

This is not the first time a novel mode of transportation has triggered a Shanghai protest. A century ago, rickshaw pullers smashed trams that threatened their livelihood. But the anti-maglev protests aren't quite like anything seen in the early 1900s or even Tiananmen times. Describing mass actions as "collective walks" is new, as is coordinating actions via text messages and having videos of marches uploaded onto YouTube.

This decidedly 21st-century form of protest in Shanghai resonates with recent demonstrations in other Chinese cities - notably the 2007 protests in Xiamen, again mostly led by members of a burgeoning new middle class, which successfully blocked the opening of a chemical plant.

Both protests involve specific goals pursued by people who do not challenge the government's legitimacy but simply call on it to make good on its own stated goals, such as working to improve the material well-being and quality of life of the Chinese population.

Earlier events in the city's history likewise began with daily life concerns, yet ultimately swelled into broader movements that challenged the legitimacy of an authoritarian ruling party.

There are parallels here even with the Tiananmen protests, which Westerners often misremember as involving demands for regime change. Even then the core demand of protesters was simply that the Communist Party make good on its promises - especially its promise to fight corruption - and engage in a true dialogue.

In Shanghai in 1986, as now, protesters were largely members of a highly articulate group with reason to feel good about the overall direction in which the country was heading. But this didn't stop them from desiring a government less arbitrary and more willing to listen to their concerns.

The Chinese authorities today should keep in mind how things that happened 20-odd years ago worked to radicalize and alienate China's university students. Shanghai's students left the streets readily in 1986, once officials signaled that their patience was wearing thin and expressed concern that the demonstrations could end up harming the very reform process that the protesters wanted to speed up.

But the situation soon deteriorated. The regime launched a campaign against "bourgeois liberalization," viewed by the students as a step backward in terms of personal freedom. And Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang was demoted for having treated the protests too lightly - something that transformed him into a hero in the students' eyes.

Things are different now. Middle-class protesters in Xiamen and Shanghai have been more insistently focused on local issues with a "NIMBY" ("not in my back yard") dimension than were the students of two decades ago.

Still, China's rulers should remember how easily authoritarian regimes can lose the good will of even those who like some things that the government is doing.

The history of Shanghai protest is filled with reminders of how dangerous it can be for a regime to appear unwilling to listen. While there may be risks to an authoritarian regime in allowing protests to continue unchecked, it may end up more damaged by leaping too quickly to treating any form of criticism as an unacceptable affront to authority.

In the lead-up to the Olympics, commentators in the West and in China have tended to focus on big issues. Some foreign critics have called for a boycott of the Games because of Beijing's links to horrific actions taking place in Darfur and Burma.

Yet the biggest challenge the Beijing government faces this year may turn out to be the one posed by a rapidly growing, highly articulate new social group with decidedly local concerns.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, the author of "China's Brave New World - And Other Tales," is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. Distributed by Agence Global.

Related article - Middle class becomes rising power in China (Chinadaily), The value of China's emerging middle class (McKinsey)

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