Tue, Mar 01, 2005 - Page 8 News List

China's middle class falls into line

By Sushil Seth

The shadow of the Tiananmen Square Massacre hangs over China, no matter how much its leadership might try to ignore and forget it. Its ghost surfaced once again with the death of former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary-general Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), who was sacked in 1989 for opposing a hard line against students agitating for a measure of democracy and transparency. But so far the party has managed to contain the fallout. Unlike with predecessor Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), whose death triggered the democracy protests, Zhao's passing was a non-event of sorts.

The obvious question to ask is why this should be so.

Economic growth has expanded the number of middle-class people with a stake in the system. At this point of time they are not keen to rock the boat and seem to share the party's concern that political stability -- with the communists in power -- is necessary for continuing growth and prosperity.

The conventional wisdom is that an expanded middle class will create the pressure necessary to open up the political system. Therefore economic growth will eventually lead to an open democratic polity. The CCP is aware that the trajectory of economic growth may eventually lead to political liberalization.

But while the CCP might hold stage-managed local elections to appease local sensitivities, it is quite adamant about the exercise of a monopoly on power at the national level. If anyone had hoped that Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) might usher in political change, his recent rounding up of "incurable" democratic romantics has destroyed such illusions.

China's leadership believes that the country need not follow the conventional trajectory. It seeks to co-opt much of the country's middle class into making China into a superpower. There is, therefore, an attempt to create a shared vision. China's new rich and new middle class appear excited by this prospect and might not want to risk it all by experimenting with democracy.

But to keep alive this shared vision, the leadership needs to constantly show that the country is heading in that direction. This doesn't necessarily mean securing military victories. What it does require is that China is heard, respected and feared as circumstances demand.

In this respect China's economic growth has created an aura of success. The word is out that China's economic success is good for all countries because China is the new powerhouse for the global economy. Many countries therefore wish to stay on good terms with China.

Not only are an increasing number of countries courting Beijing, they are also exercising self-censorship to put China's achievements in a better light. Gone are the days when China's human-rights violations were the subject of substantial international concern. When these violations are occasionally brought up by a human-rights watchdog, it hardly seems to register.

Beijing is actively fostering an image of entitlement to reverence. Whenever leaders go on state visits there are elaborate dos and don'ts for host countries to follow. Some host countries even go overboard in creating a lasting impression. For instance, when Hu Jintao visited France last year, French President Jacques Chirac had the Eiffel Tower illuminated red in his honor.

In Australia the government is only too keen to accommodate China's sensitivities. Hu's visit, for instance, was such a sanitized affair that he seemed to be visiting a vassal state. Beijing also seeks to influence local politics in obstructing the activities of Falun Gong and other organizations in their bad books.

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