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Beijing Has Bought Itself a Respite from Middle Class Revolt

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
March 7, 2011
The National

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As governments across North Africa have been overthrown or are seemingly near the verge of collapse, some Chinese writers and activists are hopeful that this democratic wave might sweep over the world's largest and most powerful authoritarian state. Unknown Chinese activists have anonymously posted an online manifesto calling for their own "Jasmine Revolution". Groups of protesters - even joined by the American ambassador to China - have gathered in Beijing to heed the call for revolt. The Chinese authorities, taking no chances, quickly shut down protests and apparently jailed some of the demonstrators. They have also been blocking any internet discussion of activists' "Jasmine Manifesto".

But despite Beijing's quick response, in reality China's leadership has far less to fear than Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Qaddafi. For one thing, unlike in many parts of the Middle East, China's urbanised centres haven't turned against the regime. Instead, most city residents essentially support, or at least tolerate, the regime. And why not? The government has been very, very good to them, as Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, documented in his book China's Trapped Transition.

After the 1989 Tiananmen protests, the Chinese Communist Party, recognising the power of educated urban protesters, delivered a raft of new incentives to co-opt the urban middle class. The government directed growth to urban areas, and launched other pro-middle class programmes. These included higher salaries for academics and other professionals; restrictions on rural people's housing and schools so that peasants cannot attend many of the best urban institutions; and opening the Party to membership for entrepreneurs, many of whom eagerly joined as a business networking opportunity. The Party reinforces the middle class content with the status quo by using speeches and state media to suggest that, in a democracy, total freedom of movement would allow rural peasants to swamp the cities, ruining the standard of living in wealthier urban areas.

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