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21 years after Tiananmen Square, will the Chinese middle class push for democracy?

Twenty-one years ago, thousands of Chinese students gathered at Tiananmen 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 crackeddown came.

Twenty-one years later, China has changed to a very different country. Today’s new middle class Chinese have little in common with the 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 problems.

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 stability over democracy.

Although the Chinese middle class does not want radical changes, they have started to voice their 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 rushed 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 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 their middle–income status reaches somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. If this rule applies to China, it will not be too long before we will see a democracy in China.

In fact, a former Tiananmen Square demonstrator / student leader told me that he believes China will have a democratic elected government in 10 years. I am hopeful that as the Chinese middle class continues to grow, democracy will arise in its time.

14 comments to 21 years after Tiananmen Square, will the Chinese middle class push for democracy?

  • Hello,

    I enjoyed your post about the ‘Middle Class’ in China, and how China has changed in the last 20 yrs.
    I’ve been following how the ‘Middle Class’ in Asia has grown in the past several yrs.

    Jim Rogers, a world renowned future trader say ‘China’ will be the next ‘World Power’.
    The way it looks now, he’s right…

    Take care,

  • Mark, thanks for the comment. Yes, China will be a major economic power. Please see my post Myth of China as a Superpower.

  • Peter

    I really do believe that an emerging middle class has nothing to do with the liberation process in China at all. This western concept of middle class and democracy does not fit China. In my opinion the middle class will be the least likely part of society to push forward. As the chinese middle class has obvious gained a lot from the ongoing form of governance (someone even stated they where bought by the government (city-countryside gap)) they are happy with what they have and won´t thread their living standard. Even when the do critize the government at some points they will not push for a real change. Another factor is that the chinese fear chaos. Ofcourse everyone does, but due to the violent history of this big country the concept of a one party rule which forfends large scale riots is widley recognised around the chinese.

  • Claes

    I agree, China is bound to go the same way as Japan, Korea, Taiwan as education level is enough for a working democracy, the coporate sector is growing and the main remining things are to devellop property rights, intellectual rights that works, a thourough surbveying so people are sure of what they own and can borrow against it, Investemnts in stocks are in place and they need better accounting both public and private. China has 1000’s of years of corruption and the party are hestant to remove their local favorites and let private business compete for the work. Even the private sector has problems of stealing intellectual rights as can be seen on % of software installed that are not payed for. China is different than Russia as it really makes stuff for the world market and are not a raw material country like Russia and do not have the same alcohol abuse problems paralyzing Russia’s devellopment.
    Still any major politic decision affects millions in a populus country like China. You will always have a few million pissed off citizens no matter what you decide.

  • Helen – great piece. I think that when westerners make pronouncements about democracy either in totalitarian states like China or theocracies like Iran, they fall into the trap that some historians do when they judge past societies. They take the socioeconomic and political frame of reference they are used to and try to shoehorn their subject into it. Then, when it proves to be a less-than-perfect fit, they criticise the foreign state instead of their own limited perspective. The clue is in the word “foreign”!

    Of course Tiananman was an outrage and the world’s condemnation was justified and probably contributed by degree to the liberalisation of recent times. But to be so arrogant as some commentators are as to conclude that a Western-style democracy might have averted the problem to begin with is wilfully to ignore abuses from Watergate to Waco. In the UK, too, we are more than capable of subverting our own democracy as , Bloody Sunday, the WMD debacle and the current Parliamentary expenses scandal all remind us.

    When I see the socioeconomic progress China has made in the past decade and phenomenal advances in education at every level, I am less inclined to preach and more prone to listen and learn. Economic success is the key driver for economic reform whether in 21st century Chaina or 19th century Britain but it doesn’t follow that every evolving governance model needs to ape Westminster or Capitol Hill. China’s system will liberalise but as long as a single-party system delivers strong growth and greater tolerance of difference, then who would blame the Chinese for only raising two cheers for western ideals of democracy?

  • Alvin Jones

    Most people do not understand what democracy is or how it comes about. Most speak about countries adopting democracy as the way to peace and prosperity when the trend has always been the other way around.

    Only after a group of people has reached a certain degree of prosperity and stability will they want or eveb be able to handle a democracy.

    Furthermore, democracy is by no means the perfect form of government. While many voices leads to discussion which is good, too many voices lead to confusion and waste.

    The Chinese, like all people, want and will continue to want more and more rights. But they may never want the confusing and evolving brand of “democracy” that is overtaking the west.

  • Cisca Wikkeling

    Hi Helen,

    Interesting article and thanks for allowing us to comment.

    I have been living in China for 9 years and it has been my observation that people in general are satisfied with the current system in the larger cities, which have seen tremendous economic growth and prosperity.
    When I speak to people from less well off areas in China there seems to be a larger degree of dissatisfaction about their inability to attain the same economic wealth and they seem to be more critical of the government.

    As a person from Europe and America I am always surprised at how little interest the younger generation seems to have in their own rights.
    I lead a team of 30 Chinese people in their late teens and early twenties. They appear to be very spoiled and self centered and don’t seem to care much about the world outside of their own environment.

    As you know the education system does not support critical thinking.

    While I know that 30 people is not a great representation of the Chinese population in general, I hear that this is the situation from others who are involved with the younger generation.

    If the younger generation does not have an interest in pushing for a democracy then who will? Certainly not the people who have benefited from the current political situation.

  • Jerry Ku

    Is democracy necessary for a country to prosper? The fundamental principles of democracy are still under debate. Every nation on the world prefers the wealthy over the poor when it comes to things like immigration policy. So why should a rich billionaire have the same political power(one vote per person) as a poor peasant who makes $1 a day?

    When you look at global politics, we saw in the past 20 years, 4-6 million central Africans die in various wars. The democratic Western nations ignored this because those Africans were seen as economically useless. But if a wealthy ally and trading partner of the US was under attack, for example, Japan, even a small number of deaths would’ve resulted in America’s military rushing to its defense. This provides another example of how the wealthy are seen as more important than the poor, which goes against basic democratic concepts.

    And when you dig deep into American domestic politics, and see how racial elements come into play, democracy seems even less valid. For example, in almost every city where poorer blacks and Latinos vastly outnumber the richer whites in the area, the whites typically become increasingly anti-democratic and pro-capitalism (they become Republicans and Libertarians). Why? Because, richer people don’t believe that poorer people (Democrats), simply because they outnumber them, are automatically in the right.

    By 2050, white Americans will have lost their majority status in the US population. Although they will be a minority, a huge concentration of wealth will remain in their hands. I believe we’ll increasingly see that these whites will move further to the right-wing, and away from democratic concepts, because they will see democracy as a pathway to wealth redistribution. In other words, democracy itself will be seen as a form of socialism.

    So I think it may benefit a growing Chinese middle class to push for more capitalism, and not for more democracy. More democracy will likely result in more agitation from the poor in China, and that will increase the taxes on the wealthy and middle class Chinese. But if more capitalism is brought about, then the middle class can cast off any burden their poor neighbors place on them, and compete in the global economy as individuals.

  • Jerry Ku


    Above is a recent article on the San Francisco Chronicle: “Whites in state ‘below the replacement level'”

    Pay close attention to the comments.

  • Robert

    The nature of the Party is paternalism, order, stability and the predictable. In the eyes of the Party, democracy is none of these things and the Party thinks China has done well with out Western style democracy where state power and authority is subject to all manner of lobby groups, monied interest and special interest political pressure.

  • […] leáis anécdotas sobre urbanitas de clase media chinos diciendo que la democracia y liberalización no va con ellos, la cosa tiene bastante que ver con este conflicto […]

  • Bruce

    The assertions in this article are quite flawed. First of all, the subject “middle-class push for democracy” doesn’t make sense. What middle-class think/ask for has no influence in china’s current political system. They are so small, and do not have any political power.

    Secondly, the articles implies that middle class only exists in beijing and shanghai only. How do you define middle class in small cities where nobody makes more than $2000 a year?

    As far as I see, China’s consolidation-of-wealth process is proceeding at an phenomenal speed. The end result is, basically, where India is at right now.

    Agreeing that democracy would solve all these troubles, there is no easy way for democracy to come to China. Those who benefited from current political system will defend against any social reform. The Chinese history has been repeating the same story too many times, so there is no surprise that the same will happen again.

  • It would be beneficial to us all if the author could provide a detailed conceptualisation of democracy. It’s a highly complex term which needs great specificity when in use.

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