Stirrings in the suburbs

By Geoff Dyer

Published: July 20 2008 18:43 | Last updated: July 20 2008 18:43

Friendship mall in Xinzhuang, Shanghai

Lu Guanfeng moved his family to the Shanghai suburbs five years ago for the peace and quiet. He bought an apartment in a gated community called Green Garden New World, which features a gazebo on the private lawns.

Since the start of the year, however, his little patch of suburbia has been anything but quiet. Instead, the residents have been developing a new taste – for political activism. In January, they organised large protests against plans to build a high-speed magnetic levitation train line near their flats. Four months later, when an earthquake devastated part of Sichuan province, the area was again energised with private charity campaigns and volunteer work.

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Mr Lu, an internet entrepreneur in his 40s, was involved in the anti-maglev protests and later went to Sichuan to help after the earthquake. “We are trying to get the government to listen more to public opinion,” he says.

Welcome to suburban China, the new fault line in the country’s one-party rule. Places such as Green Garden New World will play an important role in determining which political direction China takes over the next couple of decades. The Communist party shows no sign of retreating from its dominant position in politics but it faces challenges on a series of fronts from a society that is becoming more complex, educated and assertive.

The biggest potential threat to the party comes from the educated urban middle class. Although there are daily protests by poor farmers who claim their land has been stolen or poisoned by a nearby factory, rural protests tend to be isolated and local police are often not afraid to crack heads, far away from probing eyes. A restive middle class in the country’s international cities is a different matter. If company executives, lawyers and university professors start challenging the political status quo, the party’s hold will become much less secure.

China’s leaders are well aware that during the transition to democracy in South Korea and Taiwan – or indeed more than a century earlier in western Europe and the US – the urban middle class played a pivotal role. There is a vigorous debate in elite circles in Beijing about transparency in government, media freedom and legal due process: just how quickly the party embraces such changes will depend to a large degree on how much pressure it faces from the new suburbs.

“The government is starting to be challenged by new social groups, which are growing rapidly and want to be heard,” says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China expert at the University of California, Irvine. “Even people who support a lot of things the government is doing can change their view if they do not feel they are being listened to.”

The one thing China throws up quicker than factories is new suburbs. Mr Lu lives in an unusually prosperous one called Xinzhuang at the end of the first metro line in Shanghai. In the decade or so since the metro opened, the area has experienced rapid social and economic change. With the metro line came some of the first apartment buildings constructed for private ownership.

Professional families from the inner city who had just bought their first car were attracted to the gated communities. Rising incomes also brought many of the other trappings of middle-class life. At the new Friendship Shopping, the first high-end mall in a Chinese suburb, residents of Xinzhuang can choose a shirt at Brooks Brothers, purchase a Rolex watch or sip lattes at Costa Coffee.

Xinzhuang’s political awakening began in January when the local government released plans on an obscure website to extend the city’s maglev train line through part of the neighbourhood. Shanghai has the world’s only commercial maglev line. Planners want to bring the line, which runs from the international airport to a distant suburb at a speed of 430km/h, across the city to the domestic airport. The scheme caused outrage among residents near the planned route, who feared noise and potential pollution. Internet petitions were circulated and large posters appeared on the side of buildings with slogans such as “No to Maglev Cancer Rail”.

On a Saturday afternoon in January, thousands thronged Shanghai’s People’s Square in front of city hall to protest against the plans. Given that demonstrations are in effect barred, the residents described it as a sanbu or “walk” – they had all just happened to turn up in the square at the same time. Another group went for a spontaneous “shop” on the city’s main retail streets, shouting anti-maglev slogans.

This polite but firm suburban rebellion – which was one of the largest urban protests in recent years and was caught on camera by international media – had the intended impact. A few weeks later, the mayor of Shanghai announced that the project had been delayed by at least a year while more discussions were held with locals.

It was not the first time that residents of suburban Shanghai had opposed the maglev plans: the original route was changed after a series of protests in spring last year outside government buildings. But this time their protests were more audacious, using text messaging and YouTube to spread word about new events. The sanbu strategy appeared to have been copied from a similar protest last year in the southern city of Xiamen, which halted construction of a chemicals plant.

Both the Shanghai maglev and Xiamen protests have come to be considered milestones in Chinese politics – powerful examples of pressure from the suburban middle class for a more transparent and accountable system of government. “The Communist party has guaranteed that citizens have the right to express ideas through legal means,” says Mr Lu, sitting in a living room that displays his daughters’ pictures of Minnie Mouse as well as a statue of Confucius. “We are not opponents of the government but we are exposing some problems of government behaviour.”

Anti-maglev activist Lu GuanfengIf the maglev protests showed a nascent political assertiveness among the Xinzhuang middle class, then the massive Sichuan earthquake in May brought out a different form of political participation. Mistrustful of official charities, Mr Lu raised money on the internet to buy water filters, which he took to Sichuan. Joe Liang, who works for a private equity company, jumped on a flight two days after the earthquake to go to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. “I have a happy family and a good job with a decent salary,” he explains. “But I also had this feeling that I would like to do something for others in our society. So when a friend in Chengdu asked me to help out after the earthquake, I did not hesitate.”

Without medical training or other skills to offer the relief effort, he remained in the city doing administrative work. “It was actually really tedious, but when I got back lots of friends and colleagues were very interested and wanted me to put them in touch with contacts in Sichuan for volunteer work,” he says.

According to the government, more than 200,000 people travelled to Sichuan to lend a hand with the relief effort. At Friendship Shopping, there were long lines of people queuing to give blood for injured people in Sichuan.

The response to the earthquake has prompted a vigorous debate both at home and abroad about whether it has opened new room for civil society in China. In the days immediately afterwards, there appeared to be unusual openness for journalists and charities to operate. In the weeks since, however, the government has clamped down and imposed its control on activities.

Yet whatever the impact, the tens of thousands of people who dropped everything to lend a hand were demonstrating a desire to be more involved in the life of the country. Along with the maglev protests, they indicate a growing desire among middle-class citizens to be heard in new ways. “Chinese society is becoming more robust, diverse, interested and capable,” wrote George Gilboy, a senior fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a recent paper.

The notion that the Chinese middle class is becoming more politically active is a deeply seductive one for western observers. It plays into one of the most powerful ideas of the age: that capitalism will inevitably bring democracy. It underscores a lot of western diplomatic and commercial engagement with China – why harp on about human rights, some diplomats ask, if the country is moving in that direction anyway? It also implies that, in an important way, China is becoming like the west.

Yet there are plenty of reasons to be wary. Even among China-watchers who think a confident middle class will eventually push for a more liberal political system, many argue that it will be only a slow and gradual process.

One important reason for this is that the middle class is still relatively small. Around 800m Chinese live in rural areas, where most struggle to make ends meet through farming. In the cities, a large percentage of people now own their homes but this is a deceptive indicator of wealth because many bought property at cut-rate prices during government privatisations. Car ownership, another indicator of middle-class status, is growing rapidly but from a very low base: the proportion of Chinese who own a vehicle is still only around 3 per cent.

The small size of the middle class also begets a political conservatism. To live in the wealthy suburbs of a city such as Shanghai is to enjoy social privileges in terms of education and healthcare; many middle-class Chinese lean towards the political status quo because they suspect that a democracy would have to spread those resources more thinly across the country.

According to David Goodman, a China expert at the University of Technology in Sydney, China’s middle class has much stronger ties to the state than was the case in most of western Europe or in most Asian countries that have become democracies. As a result, it is less likely to challenge the party-state.

Chinese GDP per capitaThis is particularly true, he argues, of the new generation of private entrepreneurs. Many private companies began as offshoots of local government departments or state-owned enterprises. Even today, business people who wish to build national operations need to cultivate strong political connections around the country. In one recent list of China’s richest people, one-third were members of the Communist party.

“A lot of the new wealth has come out of the party-state through semi-privatisations or it has been absorbed by the party-state,” says Prof Goodman. “Given a free hand, some of these people might go off and form political parties, but they will not do so while the party-state is in place.”

The party has gone to great lengths to win the loyalty of professionals. At the time of the Tiananmen protests in 1989, many members of the educated middle class were outraged at their low salaries. In the intervening years, people such as university teachers have been given regular and in some cases large pay increases.

Among ambitious students, party membership is an attractive asset because of the connections it brings. One professor at a leading Beijing university says that although his very best students turn up their nose at the idea, many others are eager to join the party because they believe it will boost their job prospects.

Such favourable attitudes to the Chinese party-state were present in the other episode of political activism that stirred Xinzhuang this year – when this time the protesters were defending the good name of the government. In the aftermath of the March unrest in Tibet and chaos surrounding the Olympics torch relay in London and Paris, many were outraged at what they saw as attempts to humiliate China in its Olympics year.

After internet users began to call for a boycott of French goods, large demonstrations were held at several Carrefour supermarkets. At the Carrefour next to Friendship Shopping in Xinzhuang, teenagers milled outside with T-shirts saying “Tibet WAS, IS and ALWAYS will be part of China”. A middle class insecure about its own status identified closely with the overseas prestige of China.

Protesting against the government also brings huge risks. Several of the anti-maglev campaigners say they were threatened with arrest or other punishments if they caused too much trouble. A suspicious Mr Lu has a camera in the corner of his living room to record all meetings, either with journalists or officials. He cites a Chinese saying to explain the reluctance of people to become campaign leaders: “The shot hits the bird that pokes its head out first.”

For all the symbolism of the anti-maglev campaign, therefore, some observers believe middle-class China is prepared to challenge the authorities only when its immediate interests are threatened – and that recent events fall short of a challenge to the system.

“The outpouring of human compassion after the earthquake is real but the Chinese middle class needs fires in its own backyard to get politically agitated – witness the protests in Shanghai and Xiamen,” says Chen Jie, an academic at the University of Western Australia. “Overall, the Chinese middle class is not very mature.”

Additional reporting by Yang Jie