As China’s economy slows, an unexpected group has started to protest – the country’s middle class. Robert Foyle Hunwick reports on how effective they are
China’s middle class protest, Rebel Pepper/Index On Censorship
Park Avenue, central Beijing, is known for its luxurious serviced apartments, landscaped gardens and Western-style amenities, certainly not its dissident population. Yet, strolling past the compound one weekend, I was surprised to see a protest in progress.
A small group of around two dozen had assembled with signs and were milling around outside a locked shop, arguing with a harassed-looking man in the Chinese junior-management uniform of white shirt and belted black trousers. The cause of all the chaos: a swanky gym that had opened in the gated community a few months before, promising unparalleled 24-hour access to upscale fitness machines and personal trainers, had used a recent public holiday to sell all its equipment and, apparently, make off with everyone’s membership fees. Now a dispute was in full swing over who was going to take responsibility for this fiasco. The building management, who presumably had vetted the gym? The police? The residents?
The protest was a rare sighting in the capital of a country where free speech has always been tightly controlled by the government, and has become almost completely stifled under the current leader, Xi Jinping. Xi formally enters his second five-year term as general secretary, state president and “core” of the Chinese Communist Party in March, and fear for the future of political freedom and protest is at an all-time high. That paranoia is most acutely felt in the most unlikely of quarters, the main beneficiaries of the country’s economic prosperity, the Chinese middle class.
For those living just across the way, the uproar over the gym provided a rare piece of street theatre. This audience of weather tanned men and women from the country’s interior are the ones who run the market stalls, taxis and tool shops that skirt the towers. Even in central Beijing, these kinds of cheek-by-jowl living arrangements are still fairly common. Migrants run businesses out of ramshackle stores, leading hardscrabble lives beneath grandiose skyscrapers such as those in Park Avenue, where the well-heeled residents’ biggest concern is usually which international summer camp they should choose for their children.
Yet this poorer demographic is declining in China’s most-developed urban areas. Unregistered workers are being steadily forced from the cities whose growth they once spurred, ejected by implacable officials who often use passive-aggressive methods (erecting brick walls; suddenly enforcing long-stagnant municipal regulations) to make their working lives untenable. Blue-collar migrants have little leverage to protest these decisions, and are moving away, leaving behind middle-class homeowners who have no interest in complaining on their behalf. Indeed, most are happy to see them gone. The middle class prefer to consider themselves safe, content in the knowledge that their own rights are secured by lease- holds, law and lucre. All they have to worry about are gym memberships.
This is, or at least was, the essence of the unspoken contract that emerged in the bloody aftermath of the disastrous protests in Tiananmen Square during the summer of 1989. Prior to that, “the demands of politically active urbanites were aimed squarely at the national leadership and national policy – for political liberalisation, a free press, and fairness in local elections”, noted Andrew Walder in Untruly Stability: Why China’s Regime Has Staying Power.
After 1989, former leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms dramatically shifted the landscape to one that focused on individual prosperity at the expense of any greater good. Stay out of the politics, the government seemingly implied, and we will stay out of your lives – a “deal” that helped drive one of the greatest booms in history. Like any agreement left unspoken, though, this pact has turned out to be worth rather less than the paper it was written on.
Now as growth slows and debts accumulate, the cracks are growing more evident in the propaganda façade of peaceful prosperity, one in which absurdist posters increasingly plead “Every day in China is like a holiday”, while uniformed soldiers patrol the capital’s streets and whole neighbourhoods are torn down without warning.
Some now refer to a “normal country delusion”, the comforting myth that being a law-abiding, middle-class citizen is a bulwark against authoritarian anger. The Germans have another word for it: mitläufer – getting along to get by; the hope that obeying rules protects oneself in the event of accidentally breaking any.
The complacency of this particular fantasy was blown apart, in spectacularly literal fashion, by the chemical explosion that occurred in the coastal city of Tianjin in the early hours of 12 August 2015. Similar blasts happen on a semi-frequent basis throughout China, usually the result of muddled regulations, lax oversight and complicity between officials, developers and businessmen. Hidden in the country’s vast interior, these disasters usually pass without comment, with protests swiftly stifled and any cover- age strictly limited to terse, state-approved reports. According to the New York Times, “68,000 people were killed in such accidents [in 2014]…most of them poor, powerless and far from China’s boom towns”.
Tianjin – a city bristling with international enterprises, and easily reachable from Beijing via high-speed rail in just 30 minutes – was a very different affair. Reporters from the Chinese and international media descended on the scene within hours and the story was carried for days, providing an almost unheard of level of scrutiny.
The government’s disaster-management skills were on full display: untrained junior firefighters sent to tackle a chemical blaze for which they were fatally unequipped; a series of disastrous press conferences; officials sacked and replaced on an almost daily basis; then, finally, a total media shutdown.
They’ve taken everything from us. We’ll take everything from them.
But amid the disarray, the overriding narrative concerned the thousands of middle- income homeowners who had been killed, injured or displaced as a result of zoning irregularities that allowed 11,000 tonnes of highly volatile chemicals to be stored next to the new (and now obliterated) residential blocks within the blast zone. As one blogger observed, these were the people who “maintain a noble silence on any public incident you’re aware of. On the surface, you look no different from a middle- class person in a normal country.”
Writing on microblog service Weibo, user Yuanliuqingnian noted that when these same apolitical families gathered near the site, first to mourn, then – as the official silence grew deafening – to protest their treatment, an un- fortunate realisation set in. They “discovered they’re the same as those petitioners they look down on… kneeling and unfurling banners, going before government officials and saying ‘we believe in the Party, we believe in the country’.
The homeowners realise, much to their embarrassment, that, after an accident, there’s really #nodifference between us and them.”
A year on, Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported that the treatment of these middle-class victims remained taboo: family members of the firefighters were arrested for mourning their dead sons, while a collective of homeowners protested anew that the government had still not compensated them for their lost properties. They’d become the very people they disdained: what older Chinese called yuanmin –“people with grievances”.
In some instances, government policy unwittingly forged these resistances. I met one family in Shanghai whose home had been demolished for the 2010 World Expo. After months of protest, local officials ensured that both parents lost jobs or promotions and their two sons, in their late teens, were denied graduate placements. The result was four enraged adults with nothing to lose. “They’ve taken everything from us,” the mother vowed. “We’ll take everything from them.” Such outbursts echo the sea change in mainland protest, from the political to the personal. Today’s yuanmin “invoke national law and charge local authorities with corruption or malfeasance” as Walder observed.
“Protest leaders see higher levels of government as a solution to their problem, and their protests are largely aimed at ensuring the even-handed enforcement of national laws that they claim are grossly violated.”
These grievances are still highly risky and liable to be dispersed (or, worse, ruthlessly punished), and are only occasionally and specifically effective. Sometimes, officials might be motivated by political imperatives to quickly mollify any protesters; sometimes they might be compelled, for the same reasons, to thoroughly quash them.The result is that, despite being afforded exclusively bourgeois privileges such as healthcare and education, China’s middle class exists “in constant fear of losing everything”, writes Jean-Louis Rocca in his book, The Making of the Chinese Middle Class.“They live in an unstable world, and they are never sure where they are on the social ladder. They imitate the bourgeoisie’s life- style and they strive to avoid falling into the category of ‘workers’.”
“Zhang”, a Shenzhen-based journalist who asked for a pseudonym for fear of official repercussions, blamed the “growing pressure in Chinese society and the instability of government policies”. In the case of housing, “[some] had already scraped together barely enough to buy a house, now they had to come up with more money in the short term. In this way, even though you are ‘middle class’, you don’t quite feel like you are living the life a middle- income person deserves”.
Exacerbating matters is the lack of options available to those who have been wronged, swindled or otherwise denied their supposed rights. “Some don’t really know what options they have,” Zhang told Index. “Some are aware they can’t really do anything, in fear they might lose more of what they have.”
Ingrained anxieties are apparent in the issues that do force members of the smart-phone-clutching middle class off their We- Chat groups – where posts about “sensitive” issues are quietly erased by sophisticated censorship algorithms – and into the less- forgiving arena of public protest.
In May, dozens protested outside Beijing’s housing authority against new regulations that prevent homeowners buying multiple apartments, saying that the rules trampled on their property rights. There were similar, and partially successful, demonstrations in Shanghai the following month over residen- tial zoning rights. In this case, the municipal authorities chose to blame property develop- ers as they backed down, accusing them of “distorting the policy”.
In July, thousands staged the biggest protest in Beijing in years, after a pyramid scheme they’d invested in was declared illegal, with millions in funds frozen.
The response to the disruption was harsh. After detaining 64, police said they had “released some who created minor harm, but made good confessions. However, there will be a crackdown on those plotting and inciting the gathering.” Some are realising that this is often the case. Many others, though, are in denial about the insecurity of their wealth. Comparing Chinese society to an “atmospheric tank”, scholar Zeng Peng warned, in a paper on protest, that “to prevent the gas tank bursting, on the one hand [the government] should stop the production of grievances, on the other hand repair the safety valves”.
There have never been strong systemic means for resolving disputes in China, other than by drawing public attention. In imperial eras, yuanmin would bang gongs or throw themselves in front of visiting envoys from Beijing to plead their case, believing that the emperor’s officials would be outraged by the local rot. Today, the commonest resort for everyday yuanmin is to take to social media to blow off steam or report malfeasance.
Those without the audience or the means might take things further, travelling to Beijing to lodge a petition of complaint, an archaic and ineffectual process that dates back to ancient times, and whose continued necessity is an embarrassment for Beijing. As if recognising this, while fearing the consequences of addressing it fully, the current administration seems intent on shearing off access to any valves they don’t completely control, even while it struggles to quell the multiplying means of production.
Even when protests seem successful, the effects can prove deleterious in the long term. As Tianjin proved, the middle classes may find their calls for change ignored, the rules changed abruptly or their actions punished, just like their poorer neighbours. And those aggrieved Park Avenue protestors who’d demanded their membership fees back? When I returned a half-hour later, they’d disappeared too; not a single one remained, nor any sign to indicate they’d ever been there.
Robert Foyle Hunwick is a freelance journalist based in Beijing