China's Communist Party aims at strengthening the middle class to maintain stability in the country. But contrary to what many in the West might take this to mean, a turn towards democracy is not likely.
When thousands of demonstrators took to the street on multiple occasions at the end of October in the wealthy eastern Chinese port city of Ningbo and successfully stopped the construction of an oil refinery, it soon became clear: the protesters were all middle class citizens. That was easy to see on the many pictures taken with smartphones that circulated. Their concern: the refinery would pose health risks. The Communist Party, which had placed so much emphasis on stability ahead of its 18th Party Congress, yielded to the demands as soon as it became clear the protests would not be easy to quell.
Is this a sign that Ningbo is a turning point for the development of China's middle class? Could it even be a sign that the middle class is demanding more participation in politics as was the case in South Korea and Taiwan in the course of economic development?
No demands for political change
While there have been a number of recent demonstrations in Chinese cities against large projects suspected to be harmful to the environment, these protests can be seen as what in other countries is referred to as NIMBY - not in my backyard - demonstrations, meaning, the people voice concern due to their personal proximity to the respective projects and their worry about their own standard of living. Demands for a change in the country's political system and more participation therein by civil society were not heard in Ningbo nor in other cities.
China's middle class is only around two generations old. During the time of Mao, there were officially only farmers, workers and intellectuals. The revolutionary mission was to create a classless society. But a middle class started growing as soon as economic reforms were introduced in 1979. Today, China's is the largest market for cars. There are more than 700 million mobile telephones in the country and has the highest number of tourists travelling to the US and Germany. The country could also soon overtake the US as the largest consumer market in the world.
A matter of definition
But how big and strong China's middle class is depends on the definition of the word. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) considers households with an income between 60,000 to 500,000 yuan as middle class. That is between 6,400 and 53,000 euros. According to this definition, 310 million people, or 23 percent of the population, belong to the category. The government's goal is to increase that percentage of the population to 40 percent by the year 2020; the Communist Party is counting on the middle class to uphold stability. And many in the West believe as soon as the middle class thrives, it is bound to stand up and demand more rights and possibly even a democracy.
In the Chinese Communist Party, on the other hand, the prevailing opinion is that the middle class is already close to the political system and profits from the party's policies. And it is no wonder this is the opinion – many members of the middle class also happen to be members of the party and the apparatus of the state. At the same time, the memories of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution are still so fresh that the middle class is very interested in having political stability. Some even see it as a kind of deal - the Communist Party allows the middle class to grow and in return, it sustains from making demands.
Consumer demands vs. environment
In China's middle class - as in Singapore's and Malaysia's - the middle class has a great tolerance for authoritarian rule. Normally these middle classes don't demand a new government - just a better one, at best. For example, in fighting corruption or improving environmental and hygienic conditions. That's the Communist Party's dilemma: a growing economy fulfilling increasing consumer demands comes at a high price to the environment. But these are the people, like in the example of Ningbo, whose calls for cleaner air, clean water and safe food are growing louder.
As long as China's middle class continues to profit from economic development, it is not likely it will demand any great changes to the system. But as soon as the middle class starts to suffer, this could all change. But for now, there are no signs of that, not even in Ningbo.