As I’ve mentioned before, the Party’s greatest concern is stability. It’s a phrase used so often when glossing over corruption, censorship, and human rights abuses, that it’s almost become a joke for those of us who spend far too much time reading the People’s Daily.
In the after math of the Egypt protests the People’s Daily ran a flurry of stories about Egypt’s lagging economy caused by a lack of stability. The message was clear, the Party brings stability, and that stability brings GDP growth.
For decades all China has had to do to maintain this growth was keep moving workers from the farms to the factories, but now that the wealth gap has grown beyond even American levels of inequality, China has brought back two old tools of Communism: nationalism and sacrifice-for-the-greater-good-ism.
I was talking with a friend the other day who observed that China had managed to indoctrinate many of its people to the point that they were unable to differentiate between a criticism of the gov’t and a personal attack. This, she argued, was why many Chinese nationals are so offended when a foreigner simply points out the stinky smog that occasionally blankets the cities.
I would argue that it is this mentality of being but an undifferentiated speck in the mass that is China, which has given China the cohesion it needs to continue its economic rise. It has allowed even rural teachers, who make less than $150 a month, to promote the idea that some will get rich first, and they will get rich later.
At the same time, China is struggling to reinvent its economy, from being dependent on foreign demand to expanding domestic consumption.
The only way to achieve this goal is to promote a consumer culture. Which Beijing has been trying to encourage, without making the wealth gap too painfully clear (although the Louis Vuitton exhibit in the National Museum isn’t helping).
On the wealthy East Coast you can see that this trend is growing. Since starting at the hospital I’ve yet to meet a doctor with a watch that cost less than $200, and regularly hear stories of shopping sprees for designer hand bags (4 purchased in one trip is the current record). Not to mention the endless stream of Audi’s, BMW’s and Porsche SUV’s that you see rolling through Nanjing. At the moment, if you have an apartment and your child is in a good school, the rest of the money seems to be earmarked for conspicuous consumption.
I think this consumer culture will lead to the kind of individualism that could undermine the conformity that sustains China’s stability. At this moment China is beginning to struggle to maintain the curious balance between these two opposing ideologies. They have increased factory worker wages throughout the country (to the point that they are seen as too high by some industries) as well as limiting the use of words like “luxury” and “royal” in property advertisements. These are temporary fixes to what is likely to be a long term problem.