December 22, 2006
Written by C.N.
There is a Chinese proverb that describes the Emperor as the wind and the people as the grass: the grass bends according to the wind. This adage summarizes the traditional Chinese view on matters of government and populace. Ironically, these roles may be reversing as the Chinese government (at municipal level) is beginning to bend to the urgings of its new and growing middle class.
A recent article in the New York Times (NYT), recounted how the middle class residents of Shenzhen, one of China’s richest cities, successfully organized civic opposition against a highway that would have dissected their neighborhood. The article did not confirm if the neighborhood was spared from being split, but it affirmed that its residents achieved significant compromises by reengineering the highway and lessening its detrimental impact. This occasion was celebrated by the NYT as an important benchmark in China’s evolution towards a more participatory citizenry, and less authoritarian government.
This middle class is beginning to chafe under authoritarian rule, and over time, the quiet, well-organized challenges of the newly affluent may have the deepest impact on the country’s future.
Shenzhen has also spawned a local research group known as Interhoo, an independent association of civic-minded professionals who discuss municipal policy issues, publish position papers and quietly lobby the government over development strategy and other issues.
Academics and others who study the city’s development say it is no surprise that Shenzhen is emerging as the cradle of movements like this. From the start, its proximity to Hong Kong has made it unusually open to outside influence.
The NYT also reported that Shenzhen residents also extend their activism to other areas of concern, as some individuals run for office at the local level. But the article also warns that many advocates still face resistance from corrupt officials who resort to legal manipulation, electoral irregularities, and harassment. It is a reminder that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still has the final word on authority, and it is habituated in repressing its critics rather than listening.
The angst felt by the CCP is well expressed in another proverb: “The relationship between the government and its people is like a boat on the water: the water supports the boat, and the water can also overturn the boat.” Perhaps the CCP is coming to the realization that it must relinquish some of its powers, in order to better manage popular discontent. Maybe it is just a question of deciding which powers they want to keep. In any case, it is better to lose some cargo than to sink the ship.
Hopefully, China’s civic activism will mature into a force that empowers ALL its people, not just the nouvelle riche.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "China’s Middle Class Takes a Stand" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2006/12/chinas-middle-class-takes-a-stand/> ().
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