From 1990s the Chinese model has proved sufficiently flexible to offer – for some at least- an alternative to democracy. Is it nowadays beginning to reach its limits? Growing middle class and its demands, presents unintended consequences of economic development.
From mid 1970s China’s people have concentrated on building a materially comfortable existence. Since 1978 more than 700m people have been lifted out of poverty. For the past four decades almost everyone could be confident that their children’s lives would be better than their own. This fast-expanding group is shaping society around them. Using social media, it changes China’s intellectual, material and social landscape.
Population now numbers 1.4 billion and for majority their lives have improved faster than most of them could have dreamt. This has exceeded people’s expectations, now it is increasingly hard to manage the complex and competing demands of the middle class since urban middle class with average income over 20000US$ per year (ppp) is supposed to grow as showed on map below. To suppress them however risks holding back many of the most productive members of society. Although dissidents have been silenced for now, they are able to find out how to express their views.
Dissatisfaction over corruption, inequality, bad quality food and a polluted environment is strongly articulated and many worry that their hard-fought gains are ill-protected.
The map above shows that in predictable future affluent urban middle class will grow more evenly in China. As for now still the richest ones concentrate on middle east coastal parts of the country. (see below)
Middle classes, particularly youngest ones, increasingly look and behave like their rich-world contemporaries, but they do not necessarily think like them. Some contesting intellectuals express a sense of despair that since n 2012, Xi Jinping has limited free expression and imposed up ideology but still most of the population is supportive. Assuming an election were held tomorrow, Mr. Xi would very probably win by a large majority—and not only because there is no opposition.
“Perhaps the biggest myth about China is that because its people do not have the vote, their opinions do not matter. For decades the Communist Party claimed to embody and express the will of the masses. Surprisingly, since 1980 it has often done that, for pragmatic reasons. It has remained in power largely by letting its citizens get richer and staying ahead of their expectations, occasionally even bending to some of their demands, as with air pollution, but retaining overall control.”
Many Chinese actively engage in protests – (some statistics refer to 180000 last years)-, despite being well fed, living in their own homes and now offered the chance of having two children, are looking for something beyond material comforts. Social media became powerful means of expressing views, being controlled and restricted though.
What really counts; civic engagement became significant phenomenon in China. About 550,000 domestic non-government organizations (NGOs) are registered with the government, and a further 2m or so are either unregistered or registered as businesses, (often to try to avoid restrictions or controls). Also, around 7,000 foreign NGOs are operating in China.
Many Chinese are, through this movement, struggling against anomie and inequality caused by their country’s accelerated modernization.
The most affluent Chinese express an urge to engage in charities. The countable donations have nearly quadrupled since 2007, to 16 billion US$. Even ordinary individuals tend to contribute when emergency of some crisis or natural disaster occurs, though not systematically. According to some researchers out of a third of China’s biggest philanthropists, nearly 60% of their donations go to education, and most give to the province where they work, thus adding force to China’s overall inequality wealth gap.
There are other sources of potential instability in China, aside of growing expectations of middle class. Western province of Xinjiang, faces ethnic minorities insurgency Tibet is instable too. Millions of workers in waning industrial sectors (coal mining and steel) risk losing their jobs. Many hukou migrants from rural areas working in cities feel deprived basic benefits (such as health care and education) and marginalized. However, there is optimism that still prevails.
 The Economist; 09.July 2016