China’s Looming Class Struggle

China’s Looming Class Struggle, by Joel Kotkin.

[China’s] remarkable growth has come at the expense of China’s supposedly egalitarian ethos. Since 1978 the country’s GINI ratings — a system that measures inequality — have gone from highly egalitarian to more unequal than Mexico, Brazil, and Kenya, as well as the United States and virtually all of Europe. In avowedly socialist China, roughly 1300 individuals constitute roughly 20 percent of the country’s wealth, and top one percent roughly one-third. …

Overall, two-thirds of all Chinese are either migrant laborers, peasants, industrial workers, or agriculture laborers—all groups unlikely to make it into the Chinese middle class by Chinese standards …

The much-vaunted Chinese middle class is almost entirely a phenomenon of those with urban [resident permits], while the 40 percent of the population in the countryside struggles. …

Grew rich exploiting the proletariat:

Chinese migrants unable to claim residency in the city generally lack access to education, healthcare, and most forms of insurance. Although they perform many of the most dangerous tasks in society, notably manufacturing and construction, barely one in four has any form of insurance if they get injured. But they are largely excluded from other, less dangerous jobs.

China, notes Li Sun, may be “the world’s factory,” but much of the work is performed by these largely unprotected migrants — a million work for Foxconn, the manufacture of iPhone, alone. China’s great wealth derives, she points out, from a “worker-made” economy of people who labor 60-hour weeks for barely US$63 a week pay, reprising the role played for millennia by peasants, who provided the wealth of the Middle Kingdom but benefited little from it. …

Class revolts have often occurred in China:

This vast class of poor and often powerless migrants, peasants, and factory workers represents a far greater threat to the Chinese regime than isolated intellectuals on the mainland or even the brave protesters in Hong Kong…

Chinese history consists largely of an interplay between hierarchical regimes and occasionally rebellious peasants. The most serious uprising took place during the 1843 Taiping rebellion against the Manchu dynasty, which resulted in the deaths of upwards of 20 million people. Some of the Taiping program would later be adopted by Sun Yat-Sen, who would overthrow the imperial regime, and by the Communists in their successful drive to power.

Today, however, it’s the Communists who are the new Manchus, running a well-honed bureaucratic regime allied to a powerful capitalist class. Rather than rule by proletarians and peasants, the leadership is increasingly dominated by so-called “red princelings,” such as President Xi himself, who trace their roots to generals and top officials of the initial Maoist regime. Even the entrepreneurial class, a force for reform in many cultures, has been subsumed by the Communist Mandarins. Some 90 percent of China’s millionaires, notes Australian political scientist David Goodman, are the offspring of high-ranking officials.

This alliance with the Communists extends to the far more populous and well-established professional and managerial classes, which staffs the bureaucracies of the all-powerful party-dominated state.4 Goodman suggests that, rather than run to the barricades, these fortunate individuals would likely oppose any democratic transition that could allow the less privileged masses to threaten their status. Even those students who study in the United States and elsewhere in the West tend to support the existing system, as it will benefit them when they return. …

Ultimately, finding ways to accommodate the rumbling of the working class and the peasantry may be the only way China’s rulers can avoid the fate of their feudal and Nationalist predecessors. The contradiction between the regime’s egalitarian rhetoric and the social reality is simply too great to ignore without threatening the existence of the system itself.