The class allegiance of China’s de facto voters

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“19 people dead and no one is lighting up virtual candles, no one is discussing system (reform) and human nature, no one is talking about policy and its implementation… No pressure is put on the government. It shows the cold-bloodedness of the middle-class de facto voters.”  So wrote a Weibo commentator on Nov 20, 2017.

Two days earlier, a terrible fire ravaged an apartment building on the periphery of Beijing, killing 19 residents, including 8 children. The neighborhood was located in a “village within the city”, a Chinese euphemism for slum. The victims were mostly poor migrant workers and their families. The news did not initially draw much attention, which led the above commentator to lament about the bourgeois limitation of online rage: urban middle class people only cared when their peers were affected.

There is truth to that statement, especially when recent events are taken into account. Over the summer in 2017, Chinese social media was mourning the death of four members of a Hangzhou family (3 kids and their mother) in a fire, the result of intentional arson by their housekeeper. As the husband and father of that household, Lin Shengbin, waged a poignant and noble online campaign against his real estate managers, whom he accused of negligence (the victims’ bodies were found almost 2 hours after firefighters arrived at the scene), hundreds of thousands came to his support. People lit virtual candles for the family and heatedly debated improvement of fire safety rules.

What’s notable is that the Hangzhou family did not live in a battered working class neighborhood prone to fire and other hazards. Theirs was one of the city’s most expensive gated residential neighborhoods. The response created by Lin’s call for justice was as much about sympathy for a family tragedy as about shattered confidence in the safety of the living conditions of millions of property owners in big Chinese cities who had paid dearly for their apartments and houses.

The case occupied media headlines for as long as a month, forcing the Hangzhou government to respond in a high profile way, which reinforced an increasingly powerful narrative that despite being non-democratic, Chinese authorities are somehow held accountable by the opinions of the propertied urban middle class, which is, pathetically, blinded by the narrow interests of their own social stratum.

That limitation is felt in issue after issue, from social welfare to the environment. The Daxing fire occurred at the same time that Chinese social media was barely recovering from the shock from a child abuse scandal at (again) a high-end Beijing kindergarten (monthly tuition stood at RMB 5500, or USD 900). Parents, enraged by rumors of their kids being needled and molested, demanded answers from the kindergarten and the education authorities. The outcry appeared to have completely consumed the Internet, blinding it to the fire tragedy just miles away that killed impoverished children. Later, Beijing’s effort to clean up its polluted air this winter, a move widely seen as a response to mounting pressure from the vocal middle class, reportedly caused poor villagers from neighboring Hebei to suffer from a shortage of fuel for heating: they were forced to stop burning coal without being given a stable supply of alternative natural gas.

For years, China’s expanding urban middle class has been entrusted with the hope that it may push the society toward greater openness and better governance. And it has, to an extent. Besides the improving air quality of big cities, the pressure is also believed to have made food production healthier and the government more transparent. It is often assumed that, with a larger number of citizens conscious of their interests and rights, who won’t be readily silenced or marginalized, those in power will need to reconfigure their way of dealing with the society (or their “de facto voters”).

But increasingly that progressive image is eroded by the realization that sometimes the same consciousness of interests and rights generates less expansive and inclusive values. It is well documented that Not-In-My-Back-Yard protests against polluting industrial projects, albeit potent, often just push the projects to places with less organized resistance and a more vulnerable environment. And previously this blog has taken note of the ugly yet strong nativist sentiments in Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, which treat public goods such as roads and schools as exclusive privilege.

Up to November 20th, 2017, the fire that devoured 19 lives appeared to only affirm that wintry indictment of the Chinese middle class. But later developments would challenge that narrative and demonstrate how internet debates actively recalibrate the moral compass of the Chinese online community.

Days after the devastating fire, the Beijing municipal authorities came up with a drastic measure to solve the fire safety problem once and for all: to evacuate all the under-standard residential compounds on the outskirts of Beijing. As if trying to compensate for the inaction which might have contributed to the fire, it acted forcefully this time. Tenants were given very short notice, some in the matter of a day, to move out of their apartments. Many had to scramble for new housing, not easy to be arranged in such short time, and were rendered homeless overnight. On the Chinese Internet, videos of a massive exodus out of residential squalor began to emerge. Media reports zoomed in on those who were forced to move in freezing cold weather, producing touching stories of migrant parents and kids thrown out of their homes, some of them having to leave behind their “Beijing dream” and head back to their backwater hometowns.

As if suddenly awakened from its original silence over the incident, the Chinese Internet greeted the harsh measures with universal condemnation. In addition to those media outlets which dispatched journalists to cover the much-censored story, some of whom witnessed midnight evictions firsthand, more than one hundred intellectuals signed an open letter to the Party leadership accusing the campaign of egregiously violating human rights and dignity. The letter was swiftly removed from the web. Nevertheless, its spirit upwelled across cyberspace, and spread from online to the offline world. Before long, people started to organize support groups through WeChat that provided temporary accommodation to those who had no place to stay. Small businesses, including restaurants and family hotels, put out advertisements offering free lodging to new hires. “The massive urban cleansing campaigns that happened around the world in the 20th century was in the end no longer accepted by 21st century Chinese public opinion,” declared one Weibo commentator.

The controversy created an opening for elaborate discussions of the social fabrics that connect the urban middle class with its often-neglected migrant brothers and sisters. It produced touching first-hand accounts of the emotional bonding on a personal level and also in-depth looks at the fundamental economic and ethical basis for a more inclusive, not exclusive, urbanization process. One of the widely read media stories around the time was titled “O2O is slowing down“, which highlighted how the eviction campaign was shaking the foundation of the new Chinese urban lifestyle based on low cost online services (O2O stands for online-to-offline services), from meal delivery to e-shopping. As migrant package delivers and Didi drivers busied themselves with house hunting, urban dwellers found their orders unanswered. The lubricant of a convenient, affordable machine of service run on hundreds of thousands human beings running around the city came to a sudden halt.

As criticizing the campaign directly on a human rights basis became a sensitive undertaking and faced severe censorship, commentators turned to the economic dimension of the issue to earn more space for discussion. Beyond the shock to the Internet economy, a broader issue arose which touched on the rationale for the whole “beautification” of Beijing. “The obsession with urban cleanness that places excessive emphasis on the visuals is affecting the inclusiveness of urbanization,” criticized Li Tie, an economist with the NDRC-affiliated CCUD, in a very polite think-tank manner. Before, netizens had dug up a speech by Beijing’s Party Secretary Cai Qi two months earlier claiming that his government would “restore the majestic spatial order of the capital”, and “reinstate the unparalleled masterful plan of the ancient city.” The ambitious plan involved lowering the density of the population, construction, tourism and business in city central to “quiet Beijing down.” The speech was widely seen as laying the ground for the massive eviction, which critics claimed was against the universal law of urbanization.

Expert voices on Weibo challenged the campaign as economically unsound. Shutting down seemingly chaotic urban slums would block the low-cost buffer zones that millions use as their first entry point into a city life, therefore impeding the “sustainable process of urbanization”, as Tongji University professor Zhu Dajian puts it. In a widely shared article, influential Peking University economist Zhou Qiren argued that Beijing’s clean-up campaign was turning away “poverty alleviation opportunities that show up on its doorstep.” In the past few years, the country’s leadership has made “targeted poverty alleviation” a signature initiative. In Zhou’s view, the scale and dense population of a megacity makes unskilled jobs that are otherwise unprofitable, such as bottle scavenging, economically viable, therefore providing millions of poor migrants a way to support themselves. Instead of running expensive poverty reduction programs in remote parts of China, why not let these people lift themselves out of poverty while they are already in the capital city?

The discussion serves as an antidote not just to the narrow nativism that still occasionally surfaces (certain Beijing natives celebrated the eviction as long overdue), it also confronts a more deep-rooted social Darwinism that some believe has infected much of the thinking of the country’s elites. The outburst of disapproval of the term “low-end population”(diduan renkou) is one indication of such pushback. According to an online “archeological” piece tracing its origin (which was deleted), the discriminative term appears to be a massive slip of the tongue by China’s local governments. There is no evidence that the central government used the term in any official way, but it did appear in documents issued by lower level bureaucracies (district departments of Beijing, for instance). More likely, it is a shortened version of the “population employed by low-end industries”, a term with a much less Nazi eugenics-like connotation. But as any slip of the tongue may imply, the abridgment, some suspect, reveals the “sub-conscious” of those who use it. In an article on the Hongkong-based Initium Media, scholar Cheng Yinghong was blunt about “the ominous signs of social Darwinist politics” in China. He believed that such politics would need to constantly seek “losers” to sacrifice, while making the survivors feel righteously entitled and deserving.

Cheng’s warning found its validation in a Weibo post by “sunplantist”, an influential blogger, the day after the fire. Titled “You are at the bottom of the society, that’s your problem“, the author, with an extremely broad stroke, cast the human society as nothing more than a jungle with only two species, the “haves” and “have-nots”.  “The haves will only share their resources when technology advancement makes revolts by the have-nots a real threat. Democracy is a rational move by the haves to placate the have-nots.” But there will always be have-nots and no well-intentioned social justice policies can save them. Until they can rob the haves of their power, the only thing those poor people can do is to self-help and “change the micro-environment around themselves.”

While the popularity of such “no-bullshit” straight talk reflects the psychological foundation of a Darwinist world view, the strong backlash shows the vitality of the counter-force on social media that still bears the torch of progressive enlightenment in the Chinese society. Major microbloggers, in response to the above post, laid out articulated arguments about why the Law of the Jungle was not and should not be the organizing principle of human society. Taking care of the “have-nots” is not just ethically the right thing to do, but also rationally a better choice for the society as a whole.

Nothing captures the middle class psyche in the winter of 2017 better than a piece of satire: “The fence of the middle class has collapsed.” In an almost allegorical post, the author presents imagery that consists of a hellish blood pool, middle class garden and castle of high power. The child abuse scandal marks the fall of the garden’s fence, giving the complacent bourgeois a taste of the hell just outside. But in a dark twist of the allegory, those traumatized middle class people chose to pay slightly more to erect a stronger fence, while never courageous enough to challenge the Olympian puppet masters living in the high castle. Only history will tell if this characterization of the Chinese middle class is prophetically accurate or shortsightedly cynical. For now, those in power seem still reasonably willing to entertain the prevailing sentiments of their “de facto voters”. On November 27th, the Beijing Party Secretary instructed his subordinates to “leave sufficient time for the mass to relocate.”

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3 thoughts on “The class allegiance of China’s de facto voters

  1. Hi Tianjie, it’s great to see that you’re writing these again! Thanks for another brilliantly written and thought-provoking piece.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how the fallout from the Beijing fire and “clean-up” campaign compares to the Grenfell Tower fire in London last year. To my mind, there are many similarities between the two cases, particularly the way that ruthless profit-making, government neglect, and the shocking power imbalance between the working and middle classes sowed the seeds for the disaster. However, the way that the governments reacted to the tragedies may reveal more about the differences between a democratic and non-democratic political system. What do you think?

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    • Hi Dominic, thanks for your comments. I don’t know enough about the Grenfell Tower fire to make meaningful comparisons but I guess class was a prominent theme of the UK response too. I think how societies react to such tragedies is not just shaped by their political systems but also the general condition of how different actors interact with each other, e.g. the robustness of a civil society, the role played by media, inter-class or inter-racial relationships etc.

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  2. Excellent writing as usual. I’m always happy to discover new social themes and events that I’m unaware of.

    Like

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