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Behind the Scenes of China
By Tara Roberts
Millions of people in China are part of a rising and rapidly growing middle class – and the world is paying attention.
As well they should be, says Jie Chen, dean of the University of Idaho College of Graduate Studies and William Borah Distinguished Professor of Political Science, whose research focuses on the interplay between Chinese people and the ruling communist regime.
Chen says the United States and other countries should be aware of Chinese people’s attitudes toward their government because they will shape China’s political, economic and social future.
Chen traveled to China and Hong Kong in early June to promote his most recent book, “A Middle Class Without Democracy: Economic Growth and the Prospects for Democratization in China,” published in April by Oxford University Press. He also has been featured as an expert in Chinese politics in recent issues of The Economist and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“The major argument of this book is the Chinese middle class, first of all, was not supportive of a democracy or democratization in China,” Chen says. “Instead, the middle class supports the communist regime.”
Many Americans see democracy as the inevitable result of a growing and changing nation, Chen says. His in-depth surveys of middle-class people in three major Chinese cities reveal a different outlook.
The primary reason: The middle class have benefitted from the government’s policies in the past two decades of China’s post-Mao economic reform.
“Mostly their support for the regime is out of their own collective and individual interests. They have benefitted from government policy; they understand that the government is on their side,” Chen says. “The government helped them build their financial wealth and also helped them build a higher social status. They enjoy tangible and intangible advantages, compared to the lower class that still constitutes a vast majority of the population.”
The middle class – along with the country’s private entrepreneurs, a group on which Chen published a book in 2010 – didn’t exist 20 years ago. They emerged as a result of the communist government’s policies, such as the new constitutional protection of private property, the privatization of state-owned enterprises and the relaxation of government control on ordinary people’s social lives.
However, this positive relationship could dissolve if the middle and entrepreneurial classes felt they were no longer supported.
“The government has to continuously feed these social classes with economic benefits,” Chen says.
As China continues to emerge as a powerhouse on the world stage, people should be aware of what today’s China is like. Chen hopes to contribute to the UI Confucius Institute’s mission of expanding understanding of Chinese culture and society.
On a nationwide scale, Chen says, U.S. policy makers need to understand China’s future in order to make suitable policies in areas of trade, human rights, global democratization, and regional and global security.
And, he adds, understanding a communist country can help Americans appreciate and critique their own political system.
“In this country nobody really thinks about a life without democracy. I hope people can appreciate it,” he says. “On the other hand, people in this country should understand the ‘costs’ of democracy, such as short-term inefficiency in dealing with economic downturns due to party politics.”
Chen continues to dig into Chinese people’s attitudes toward their government. While in China, he laid the foundation for his next project – investigating ordinary people’s evaluation of major government policies.
He will survey citizens across social classes and regions to compare how they feel about policies related to environmental protection, housing, care for low-income people, taxation, fighting corruption and more.
He hopes to begin the survey in late summer, with help from his research partners at China University of Political Science and Law.
Two of Chen’s recent books – “A Middle Class Without Democracy” and “Allies of the State: China's Private Entrepreneurs and Democratic Change,” co-authored with George Washington University professor Bruce J. Dickson – and related research were supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s highly competitive political science program.
His ongoing research is supported by a competitive research grant from China’s Ministry of Education.