NYT: In Chinese Boomtown, Middle Class Pushes Back

Howard French has an article in this morning’s New York Times on middle-class activism in Shenzhen. Two years ago, local residents learned of city plans to build an expressway right through the middle of their neighborhood. But these weren’t your typical, ordinary peasants or hutong dwellers. They were part of China’s new latte set: China’s growing urban middle class. Led by former rocket scientist Qian Shengzeng, local residents organized and protested to the Shenzhen municipal government. Finally, after two years of fighting, authorities agreed to compromise and change the route of the proposed highway and also agreed to design changes that limit the environmental impact of the roadway.

It was no accident that the battle was waged in Shenzhen, a 26-year-old boomtown that was the first city to enjoy the effects of China’s breakneck economic expansion and that has served as a model for cities throughout the country.

Increasingly, though, with its growing pains multiplying, Shenzhen looks like a preview, even a warning, of the limitations of the kind of growth-above-all approach that has gripped much of China.

But Shenzhen may also herald more promising changes. Possibly the greatest force taking shape here is the quiet expansion of the middle class, thicker on the ground here than perhaps anywhere else in China. This middle class is beginning to chafe under authoritarian rule, and over time, the quiet, well-organized challenges of the newly affluent may have the deepest impact on this country’s future.

Since the 1980s, there has been a theory that a growing middle class in China would be the catalyst for change as a new urban elite emerges to challenge the authoritarian rule of the CCP. Supporters of this argument point to similar changes in South Korea and Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s. The more skeptical would say that this is hogwash and that China’s middle class is too small and too absorbed with making money and economic status to challenge the party. Moreover, the legacies of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests left those Chinese with the greatest economic resources, the urban elite between the ages of 35 and 55, with little desire to engage in political dissent.

Whether or not the urban middle class is yet a force for national change is doubtful. But the recent experience of Shenzhen’s Professor Qian and his neighbors show that this new elite can create change at the local level. And when you want to change something big, sometimes it’s best to start small.

The Discussion: 3 Comments

Man against the machine – a very inspiring story and I was impressed to see the NYT give it such prominent play. Of course, it would be cool if the less privileged could similarly halt such blatantly hare-brained government projects, but it’s still a big step forward. (And I know, even in the glorious US of A, the little guys have trouble standing up to the government, and it’s always in their backyards that the nuclear power plants and garbage processing plants get built.) The implications of the story are immense, and further underscore just how awful it is for the government when groups of people get together to pool their resources and stand up against the Party. No wonder they want to oversee all the clubs, churches, online forums et. al.

December 19, 2006 @ 3:16 am | Comment

I saw that article too, great story. Thanks for posting it!

Before I came to China, I was another big believer in the “growing Chinese middle class + internet = trouble for CCP rule” formula. But not long after moving here, I changed my mind, for much the same reasons cited in the post.

That makes it extra refreshing to see new evidence that this formula may well prove a forecast, even if it takes a bit longer than we impatient laowai would like.

December 20, 2006 @ 5:22 am | Comment

I thought it was cool. A friend and former student of mine was one of the organizers of the “resistance”, quitting her job and devoting months to petitioning and organizing demonstrations (up to 4,000 people at one point). Glad they finally got some traction, but it took a huge effort.

December 21, 2006 @ 11:15 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.