Class in China

In the reform era the class structure of Chinese society and the nature of class politics have changed as the source of Party legitimacy has moved from socialist ideology to economic performance under conditions of “market socialism” (the CCP is nowadays a ‘party in power’ rather than a ‘revolutionary party’). A new class of private entrepreneurs unknown under Mao emerged, empowered by their riches and gradually embraced by the Party. Workers and farmers, formerly the bedrock of the CCP regime, have been marginalised by the restructuring of agriculture and industry. Millions have lost their jobs, their access to social welfare and their sense of place in a society that increasingly values a nakedly neoliberal vision of modernization rooted in urbanization and consumption. Economic opportunities have enabled the re-emergence of the middle classes (or ‘middle income stratum’; 中产阶层 rather than 阶级). They have also created a floating population of migrant workers: a new urban underclass with a corresponding cohort of those ‘left behind’ in the hollowed out countryside.

Class politics were one of the defining characteristics of PRC history in the 20th Century. In the transition to market socialism ushered in by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms many class based terms have disappeared from the official lexicon, but class remains an analytically and substantively important way of approaching Chinese society. New types of class relations between the party and the people and horizontally between different groups are having a fundamental effect on Chinese society. Classification of the population was one of the first steps taken to establish the new regime, and by the early 1950s everyone in China was assigned a class from a granular list of 62 descriptors. People were assigned a class origin (阶级成分) determined by their activities in the three years immediately prior to 1949, and class background (家庭出生) based on their father’s occupation at time of birth. These two pieces of information, a socio-economic position and a political inclination implied by behaviour, were included on peoples’ household registration documents and went a long way to determining one’s fate during successive campaigns against landlords, industrialists, intellectuals, the bourgeoisie, rightists, capitalists and the like, which came to head in the Cultural Revolution. Class consciousness was ideological, political and operationalized through designations that for very large numbers of Chinese people and their offspring were a matter of life and death. People identified as ‘reds’ (peasants, workers, revolutionary soldiers) could do well (to the extent that anyone prospered under Mao), whereas coming from a ‘black’ background (capitalists, landlords, nationalists) was an invitation to be ‘criticized’ and worse during recurrent bouts of ‘class struggle’. By the end of 1956, the means of production were largely socialized. The countryside was arranged in collectives, urban enterprises were under state control and the effective negation of private property culminated during the Great Leap Forward. But that didn’t mean the end of class struggle.

When Mao appealed to the “bourgeoisie” within the Party, ostensibly soliciting feedback from academics, journalists and other intellectuals, he was shocked by the level of criticism and quickly launched the Anti-Rightist campaign to purge them. The pernicious threat of the “bourgeoisie” coloured much of Mao’s subsequent rule. When he identified four major classes (two exploiting, two labouring), he set the quota for class enemies (imperialists, bureaucrat capitalists, Rightists et al) at 5% of the population. Class struggle was central to Mao’s modus operandi, and was often underpinned by strategic thinking to further his own goals vis-à-vis political opponents in the top echelon of the Party leadership. The abandonment of Mao’s Great Leap and Deng Xiaoping’s role in re-introducing the material incentives that led to increases in production and recovery in the devastated countryside planted the seed for his subsequent purge (having been identified as a Capitalist Roader). Party leaders who did not accept Mao’s vision or otherwise incurred the Chairman’s displeasure were labelled class enemies. By the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao’s power struggles led him to directly appeal to the masses to attack those in the Party supposedly taking the ‘capitalist road’.

After Mao’s death, ‘black’ class labels were removed and the judgement on Mao contained in the 1981 “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” came with an attempt to smooth class relations. To wit, workers and intellectuals were said to belong to the same heterogeneous class; the possibility of class conflict under socialism was denied; and it was claimed that ‘the bourgeoisie’ couldn’t possibly exist within the Party. But as Deng’s reforms started to deliver results, and some sectors ‘got rich before others’, these simplifications came under stress, from the obvious advantages that Party cadres (and later their children, the despised富二代) were beginning to enjoy and the exclusion of the large number of private and would-be entrepreneurs. The Party’s response (with a blip around 1989 and accelerating after 1992) was to encourage the development of the middle classes (or strata)—and to embrace private entrepreneurs. This was the major symbol of the changing emphasis of economic activity over class relations, finessed post-hoc by Jiang Zemin’s notion of the Three Represents (the Party represents advanced social and productive forces, advanced culture and the interests of the overwhelming majority).

A middle class society is an aspiration for China. China’s modernization, the major pre-occupation for successive regimes since the mid-19th Century, has come to be tied to the development of a certain conception of the “middle class lifestyle” embodied by people who possess certain characteristics, behaviours and norms, many of them tied up with consumption and urbanization. Those who don’t fit the norm—typically migrants—are cajoled to become “civilized” (文明) or ostracized for their inferior “quality” (素质). The modernizing narrative is ubiquitous and to “be modern” is tied to the other pillar propping up the CCP regime, nationalism, via the “Chinese Dream” of prosperity and power. Certain types of economic behaviour—notably consumption—have been reified as acts of patriotism (notwithstanding the recent anti-corruption campaign against excessive consumption among party officials). Much is expected of the Chinese middle classes (by the Party as much as Chinese businesses and multinationals), and much is being provided for their benefit. The middle classes are seen as a force for “stability” (the regime’s major pre-occupation in the reform era), and the engine for upgrading China’s economic model, particularly via consumption (viz the expansion of higher education, tourism, online shopping, home buying, the automobile market etc.) When the middle classes are unhappy, governments listen: compare the fate of urban home-owner’s protests and demonstrations against chemical factory construction in well-off urban areas with those of dispossessed farmers or unpaid workers.

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