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The Nature of Contemporary Chinese Society and "Changing Social Classes"

Translated Wednesday 12 June 2013, by Cressida Wordsworth

By Wen Tiejun, Dean of the School of Agriculture and Rural Development at the Renmin University of China

Chinese society is currently undergoing profound structural changes, which has seen the emergence of two classes, the new urban workers and the middle class. Consisting of approximately 300 million individuals, these two classes pose a major challenge to municipal management and the maintenance of social stability and sustainable development.

According to statistics from 2011, the number of peasant-workers in cities and coastal areas, made up of 253 million individuals, or 50.7% of the entire rural population, disengaged themselves from agricultural work. Nonetheless, these peasant-workers with their own housing and rural land are from an economic point of view considered part of the petty bourgeoisie.

If their change in status (as part of the major urbanisation project, NDLR) from peasant-workers to industrial workers arises, they will be solely dependent on their modest salaried incomes. Consequently, the emergence of the most significant working class in the world would be accelerated in China. Three possible effects can be measured from this. Firstly, following the example of what happened in other developing countries, a phenomenon of geographical migration of a collective rural poverty towards urban areas will emerge, progressively giving rise to slums. Secondly, the balance on which rural families rest will be shattered. Indeed, until now rural families’ livelihood was supported by the modest income of the peasant-workers employed in the cities and income from the land. Thirdly, the emergence of the proletariat in its conventional sense will accelerate, alongside a broader awareness of their own existence. The cost of labour in companies will consequently increase and conflicts between the work force and employers will emerge.

Characterised by a high level of education, communal housing and collective working methods, the social class representing the new workers in China is already entering a stage of politicisation before the Chinese bourgeoisie. Due to rapid urbanisation and economic growth, the Chinese petty bourgeoisie makes up the most significant middle class in the world, amounting to 300 million individuals, 23% of the country’s population. This figure could reach the 500 million mark by 2015, or 30% of the total population. Based on this reality, it would be unreasonable to claim that the share of consumption in the Chinese economy is insufficient. In addition, with faster growth rates, this consumption has more serious environmental impacts than those observed in emerging and western countries. The Chinese middle class, primarily concentrated in urban areas, has demonstrated a strong commitment towards participating in local governance and defending its own interests. Nevertheless, China’s middle class, constrained by a broad geographical presence, a dispersal in different sectors and an unstable formation, is still finding its political voice, which remains fragmented and unpredictable in both style and content.

However, confronted with these economic and social changes, and taking into account the new resulting conflicts, the theorists of the two main schools of thought, who also happen to be rivals, have chosen to ignore the subject. The political power, constrained by an Anglo-American model, only deepens the conflicts borne from these structural changes, fostering an escalation of political risk leading to social unrest. Grassroots and central authorities will become the targets of disorder. This is the new context in which social classes are interacting and where the westernisation of the media is cultivating social unrest, ultimately feeding into social conflicts. The government’s outdated methods for maintaining social stability are incapable of responding efficiently to structural social changes, as there is no analysis of changing social classes in the dominant ideological discourse in China.

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