China’s Mounting Public Discontent

Will a Chinese “culture of excess” ultimately undermine a seemingly unshakable economic success story?

As the Chinese economy continues to grow, the Chinese themselves are becoming more assertive. Discontent is carefully becoming evident while the gap between China’s coastal success and rural lack of development widens. Do the urban nouveaux riches threaten to upset the now precarious balance between rich and poor?

Writing for Newsweek, Eleanor Clift urges the Chinese to look at America’s fate to “see what will happen if they don’t curb their energy appetite and address the growing gap between rich and poor.” She warns of a culture of excess, obsessed with American lifestyle, cars, homes and popular culture, taking hold of China’s burgeoning metropolises while the countryside remains desolate and poor.

Chinese billionaire and real estate developer Zhang Xin displayed rather more insight on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on September 5. She pointed out that the “American glory is fading a bit.” The financial meltdown and ongoing recession troubling the United States has many Chinese disillusioned about the success of the American model and shattered their hopes of imitating it.

This is true both for the average Chinese and the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. According to Pieter Bottelier of the New Atlanticist, the crisis confirmed, for the Chinese, that the state must maintain a firm grip of markets; that it “must maintain a strong, direct role in key industries; and must reduce China’s dependence on external demand and promote domestic consumption.” The government is planning therefore to optimize energy independence and efficiency; encourage the growth of high tech industries and provide for “affordable housing” in what is a rapidly urbanizing society.

On the whole, the Chinese economy’s recent growth, though impressive, has been unequal. Hundreds of millions of Chinese, especially outside of the major cities along the eastern coastline, are still poor and dependent on subsistence farming.

Yet, according to Xin, this inequality is not primarily responsible for mounting public discontent in China, rather it is fueled by a lack of ideological and political freedoms. “All we’re allowed to do,” she said, “is make money.” Eventually, that’s not enough. But it’s only as the Chinese become richer, educated and more worldly that they’ll start demanding the power to take matters into their own hands.