Twenty-one years ago, thousands of Chinese students gathered at Tienanmen Square demanding more democracy. The world still remembers the stunning image of a lone student standing in front of armed tanks in an attempt to block the tanks from entering into the Square.
At the time, I had just arrived in the United States as a student and watched the entire demonstration on TV. Like other Chinese students in the U. S., I protested with them on the streets and wept with them when the crackdown came.
Today China has become a very different country. The new middle class has little in common with those idealistic students.
They are the beneficiaries of China’s economic reform. Most of them approve what the government has done. They are all busy trying to keep up with the swirling changes.
Geng Hui, an interior designer in Beijing, told me that he couldn’t care less about democracy. “I have all the freedom to do the things I want,” he said. “I have more opportunities than I can pay attention to.”
“People don’t care about politics now,” Veronica Chen, a young woman who started her own executive search firm in Shanghai, said. “They only care about having a good life and being trendy.”
Some people I talked to said they wished that their rights were better protected, but they also understand that China is a big country and it has a lot of complex problems. They are concerned that if the Communist Party is not in power, no one else is capable of running such a large country with so many challenges.
The truth is that the Chinese middle class and the Chinese government want the same thing–continuing economic growth and stability of the country. When it comes to choosing between democracy and stability, they choose the latter.
Although the Chinese middle class does not want radical changes, it has started to voice its opinions and show signs of power that never existed before. The Internet and mobile phones have played a significant role in this process.
In November 2008, China pushed through a 4 trillion yuan ($585 billion) economic stimulus package. People debated vigorously in blogs and online media about how well the plan was constructed. Critics inside and outside the Communist Party pressed for details about the spending and demanded the right to follow the money.
A Shanghai-based lawyer, Yan Yiming, filed a lawsuit against the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s de facto central planning agency. Although Yan’s suit was rejected by the Beijing High People’s Court, a lawsuit against the central government was unprecedented.
In May 2009, the Chinese government issued a statement to require all the computers sold in China to pre-install spyware called “Green Dam Youth Escort.” China’s 300 million Internet users strongly opposed installation of the software. After weeks of criticism from the public, the Chinese government backed off, and later announced that “Green Dam” was no long required to be pre-installed on new computers.
These are just a few examples of how the Chinese middle class pushes back and demands more protection for their rights, property and privacy.
Many people I talked to expressed the sentiment that “only when we have economic freedom, will we have political freedom.”
Evidence from other countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, suggests that when countries advance economically, they begin to change politically around the time that the incomes of their middle class reach somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. If this rule applies to China, it will not be too long before we will see some sort of democracy movement in China.
In fact, a former Tienanmen Square demonstrator/student leader told me that he believes China will have a democratically elected government in 10 years. I am hopeful that as the Chinese middle class continues to grow, democracy will arise in its time.