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The Death and Life of Middle Class Politics in China

Observing Recent Events, Especially the Death of Lei Yang

By Wu Qiang, June 13, 2016

 

As public contention surrounding the death of Lei Yang’s continues to grow, something new is developing in China’s political scene: the middle class is speaking out and asserting its own demands, even as the rights defense movement continues to suffer a sustained crackdown.  

 

吴强 (2)

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强)

Four recent deaths in China sparked widespread public attention. The first, on April 12, was the that of Wei Zexi (魏泽西), a university student in Shaanxi Province, who perished from a rare form of cancer after following recommendations for a hospital from China’s largest search engine, Baidu. It turned out that the facility was part of the so-called “Putian network,” a clique of corrupt businessmen with their origin in a township in Putian, Fujian Province, who peddled quack treatments. The incident exposed the unethical ties between Baidu and hospitals in China. Then on May 5, Chen Zhongwei (陈仲伟), a doctor in Guangzhou, was hacked to death by a patient in his own home. Two days later, the 29-year-old Beijing environmental worker Lei Yang (雷洋) died in police custody shortly after being apprehended on the street by plainclothes police. On May 10, the 36-year-old Zhengzhou resident (and Masters degree holder) Fan Huapei (范花培) was so enraged by the forced demolition of his property that he lashed out at, and killed, a local official—he was soon after shot to death by police.

All these deaths triggered protests of varying scale, with anger and discontent directed at a search engine company, the healthcare system, the military, and the police. Beneath it all is the deep sense of anxiety of the Chinese middle class, worrying about its personal safety, health, and livelihood. To this author, what’s notable is that fact that these events have sparked unprecedented and new forms of organization and protest, with China’s social elites taking the central role.  

The most representative instance is the protests that burst into public view following the death of Lei Yang. Lei graduated with a Masters degree from Beijing’s elite Renmin University of China in 2012. On his way to the airport to pick up relatives in the evening of May 7, he was arrested near his home by several plainclothes police officers. Soon after, he mysteriously died in their custody. Later, local police said that they had been carrying out an “anti-prostitution” crackdown, and thought that Lei Yang had just exited a brothel. They broadcast the testimony of an on-duty police officer, as well as a “prostitute,” on state television to back-up this story, and also claimed that all of the surveillance cameras in the vicinity had been damaged. The body-cameras on the police who interacted with Lei Yang were also broken, they said. And when it was found that even all recording on Lei Yang’s cellphone had also somehow been removed, they said they had nothing to do with it. The brutal acts of the police, their blatant coverup, and weak defense, infuriated Lei Yang’s friends and schoolmates.

On May 11, an open letter of protest signed by alumni of Renmin University’s class of 1988 (the year of entrance) quickly went viral. A string of open letters by other alumni classes soon appeared online, including a joint declaration by alumni of the class 1977 and 1978.

Directly and unequivocally, these letters questioned the Chinese police’s use of violence and abuse of power, and for the first time brought into the open the collective sense of deep unease and personal insecurity felt by China’s middle class—in particular the fear that even their own basic physical safety isn’t protected. They also called for an independent, transparent investigation into Lei’s death. The alumni of the Class of ‘88 described the death of Lei Yang as “the random, willful killing of an ordinary, urban, middle-class person.”

At the end of that letter appears one of the strongest remarks of the last decade: “The death of Lei Yang is not an accident, but a structural tragedy. We ask that the highest authorities conduct an independent and fair investigation into Lei’s death; we demand that the murderers be punished and that law enforcement be rectified and disciplined. We must have the most basic, dependable safety, civil rights, and urban order. Short of this, we, who are not too old to give up on the future, will not let the issue go. We won’t tolerate evil indefinitely.”

A week later, the protest brought two public responses by China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping, one of which demanded that the government treat China’s middle class properly, the other demanding that law enforcement be regulated.

These episodes do not really, in fact, sit neatly within the established paradigm for understanding Chinese politics: they rupture the superficial harmony and stability between the Chinese society and government, and demonstrate a transformative contention between old and new forces, furnishing observers with a new framework for understanding events. The situation parallels the philosophical-spiritual analysis laid out in the book “Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept” by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, where he refers to the creation of a new political subject. China’s newly rising middle classes are, through their participation in these incidents and the solidarity that inheres in that participation, reconstituting their own subjectivity. In the context of three years of iron-fisted rule under Xi Jinping, this is without doubt an extraordinary challenge and shift.

It’s true that this series of incidents is still playing out, the outcome is still uncertain, and the public’s attention will likely to shift to new topics as they burst forth, but events like the death of Lei Yang may be moving China’s political tectonics, and may be the only path for pushing change in China’s stiff and ossified political system.

Behind these incidents is the display of the unprecedented power of China’s newly risen urbanized classes. They mobilize and stage protests via alumni groups on social media platforms, and unite two generations of China’s educated class — the 1980s generation and the  post-Tiananmen generation — in their demand for justice. This is a new form of Chinese politics, or put another way, the rise of a middle-class politics in China.

Even though these are small actions in the post-Tiananmen market reform period, they have already created many precedents: The first successful mobilization using alumni networks; the first cross-generational mobilization of alumni including both elites within the official system and social elites; the first instance in which an elite university has been involved in the expression of the collective fears and anger of the new middle class; and the first large-scale direct resistance to police order, which throws down a challenge to the core of power and authority in China: the police, and police violence.

Considering the large-scale self-organized protests across China in May against “reducing Gaokao admissions” that included self-immolation and expressions of extreme discontent with the current education system, we can safely declare that this is the first time since the Sun Zhigang incident in 2003 clearly signalling that China’s middle class is no longer rejecting political resistance. Because of Lei Yang’s death, the social capital formerly deployed in the reproduction of elite status (in this case alumni ties) was instead mobilized, politicized, and transformed into a new tool of middle class protest. Afterwards, participants felt a clearer sense of group identity, clearer political demands, and on the basis of their collective anxieties, used social media to further mobilize, eventually forming a protest coalition.

What’s even more significant about this is that the new form of middle class politics has arisen in the three years that the Xi Jinping regime has been dealing heavy, incessant blows to China’s civil society. This includes the Southern Weekend incident in the beginning of 2013, the “internet cleansing” campaign that shortly followed, the forcible shutdown of independent NGOs and then the arrest of NGO leaders, rights lawyers, women’s rights activists, and labor leaders, and in the strengthening demands in the ideological sphere for loyalty to Xi and the Communist Party, and rejection of Western values.

While the rights defense movement has spread like wildfire in China over the last decade, the middle class participants have been limited to rights lawyers, a small number of intellectuals, journalists operating at commercial media, and NGO workers. In the burgeoning middle class in China, these people represent a very small number. They advocate primarily for the rights and interests of those in society’s lower strata, as well as minority groups, using their professional capabilities to provide assistance, and supporting self-organized activities like “protests according to the law.” However, these “downwards from the middle” rights defense efforts  — which include the flourishing of NGOs, philanthropy aimed at helped those at the bottom of society, and limited “surround and watch” (围观)  protests, where activists congregate where events took place — have all slowly been receding in the last few years, as the Xi Jinping regime unfolds a campaign of targeted repression over fears of a “color revolution.” Institutionalizing suppression, the Law on the Management of the Activities of Overseas NGOs within Mainland China, which was promulgated on April 29, 2016, not only severed the ties between Chinese civil society and the international community, but also isolated the middle classes and their NGOs from the lower social strata.

It was just as the rights defense movement in China was being terminated by force that the string of incidents over the last month indicated a new phase of development: the political resistance of the Chinese middle class, using an entirely self-mobilized organizational model, has emerged as a player on the political scene. Importantly, they’ve begun to display an identity and set of demands that have already, at a certain level, exceeded what would be expected of a group that is tacitly reliant on the system (because they, as a class, are the petty bourgeois that has arisen from the coming together of the bureaucratic class and the market economy). They’re also building on the foundation laid by the rights defense movement over the past 10 years, and even that of the earlier 1989 movement, with a new process of internal class mobilization.

Compared with the rights defense movement’s attempt, from the outside, to mobilize the lower classes, China’s middle class possesses more robust resources for a movement — whether financially, ideationally, or rhetorically. As to whether they’ll be able to better use new media and technology and organizational forms, the extent of their convictions and willpower, and whether they’ll be able to stage still more protests and acts of defiance — all that, of course, will only be known as we observe the struggles that are sure to follow. The one thing that we can be sure of is that the string of incidents over the last month has established a new framework for political resistance in China, and moreover, has begun to change the self-awareness of the middle class.

That is, they’ve learnt that the bonds of the middle class traditionally used for maintaining class identity and social reproduction can also be transformed into a force for mobilization and resistance. It’s only the diehards in the rights defense movement, who arrogate to themselves the right to speak for the lower classes, and who’ve been suppressed by the authorities, who not only can’t imagine the changes that may result from this new politics, but who also persist in discounting the significance of the middle class and middle class politics.

As the size of the middle class increases, and the the pace of urbanization speeds up, the Chinese government’s basis of legitimacy is quickly turning into a question of whether it has the continued support of the middle class, and whether that middle class has sufficient household consumption. All that is happening at a time when the Chinese economy continues to decline, or faces a prolonged “L-shaped” period of stagnation. With all this in mind, we can safely predict that middle class political resistance is going to emerge as a major force in China. A political opposition may emerge out of the demand for equal rights to education, personal freedom, and civil rights, competing with the Communist Party for the role of middle class’ protector, thus influencing China’s political future.

 

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.


Related:

Minxin Pei: China’s Middle Class Is About to Demand Big Changes, May 26, 2016

Also by Wu Qiang on China Change:  

In the Wake of the Sino-American Summit, the Potential for a New Cold War, October, 2015.

Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview, August, 2014.

 

原文 中產階級的死與生──雷洋案後維權運動的終結》. China Change translated an earlier version of the article.