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China’s princelings aren’t charming the new middle class

Social and political change always brings with it winners and losers. For all its uniqueness, the Middle Kingdom is no different. China may have a 5,000 year history to look back on, but never has it changed…

Life is all moon cakes and whisky for China’s elites. misbehave

Social and political change always brings with it winners and losers. For all its uniqueness, the Middle Kingdom is no different. China may have a 5,000 year history to look back on, but never has it changed as rapidly and as thoroughly as it has in the last 40 years. Cities like Shenzhen, rural backwaters just a generation ago, now make London look like a quaint market town.

China has grown more confident (although not quite as confident as many in the west may believe), it’s got brasher and most of all it’s got richer. Where once the Chinese used to learn English by reading the translated works of Mao, they now do so by poring over MBA textbooks.

A significant number of people in China have also got very rich indeed, and in 2013 China didn’t just have 1.3 millionaires, but also 83 billionaires sitting in its rubber stamp parliament. The Chinese regularly come out in first place when international surveys ask questions about a citizen’s optimism for the future. No nationality is more confident that the future will treat them well than are the Chinese.

One day my princeling will come

One group of very clear winners are the princelings: the sons and daughters of China’s rich and powerful, taizidang in Mandarin. Quite how many princelings exist is not clear. But one thing is for sure - their behaviour often leaves senior CCP officials shaking their heads in despair.

The Chinese culture of guanxi, or networking, ensures that making progress - whether that be in getting a job, a promotion, in getting particular tasks done or such like - often involves understanding networks and, most importantly, making yours work for you. This need not be untoward (networks are clearly not a uniquely Chinese preserve), but often, for westerners at least, the arcane conventions and relationships that underpins guanxi can be totally unfathomable. And decidedly dubious.

The princelings, with rich and powerful families around them, have networks second to none. And they use them to get the best jobs in the best places. They buy the best clothes (with the best labels), drive the best cars and are not shy in showing off about it. Until recently, this was all widely ignored. If asked about the princelings, the man on the street would be likely to shrug his shoulders and move on, no doubt to try to look after his own group of contacts and friends. But recently that has begun to change.

Blame the sin, not the sina

As sina weibo, a Chinese cross between Facebook and Twitter (both of which are, of course, banned in mainland China), expands its membership to more than 400,000 million, more and more people are getting access to news from more and more sources. The Great Firewall of China may still exist, but not even the CCP can employ enough sensors to monitor all internet activity all of the time.

With information has come more and more dissatisfaction. Not with any perceived lack of democracy or with, say, the alleged human rights abuses of the CCP in Beijing. They are, no doubt much to the chagrin of some western observers, of virtually no significance to the everyday Chinese.

Until recently, the wealth and power that the well-connected posses was not as obvious as it is now, and, furthermore, when the likes of Li Qiming, the son of a senior policeman in Hebei province, was seen daring onlookers to call the police after a traffic accident, boasting that the status of his dad would see him escape justice, this really does irk. Qiming is not an exception, and the the “don’t you know who I am” culture of a small group of privileged young adults has caused considerable indignation.

Over the moon cake

In an authoritarian state this would normally not matter. The rank and file simply get ignored. But a sideways look at what happens when states modernise as rapidly as China tells us that it should and indeed it does matter. China’s middle class is now roughly the same size as the population of Europe. And it is growing. China is still a developing country, but as a middle class develops and socio-economic modernisation continues, this class becomes more willing to defend its own interests and point out the indiscretions of others.

No one is calling for the overthrow of the CCP. But Chinese leaders are still desperate to make themselves look like they are of the people and for the people. They want to look much more humble. This can be seen in the new government’s ongoing anti-corruption drive, involving a ban on giving officials expensive presents (ranging from top of the range “moon cakes” to bottles of Scotch whisky) and cutting back on extravagant dining (something the head of Hong Kong’s much respected anti-corruption agency has recently found to his cost).

The Chinese people, of course, are not daft. They know that the culture of guanxi means that those at the top will continue to ensure that those they like will do well. But they’d rather not see it. And they really don’t want to see the princelings flaunting it.

The politics of the princelings is unlikely to be the key causal variable in bringing the regime down. But in a system that deals very badly with dissent, the behaviour of (some of) the privileged few is a now real problem.

If modernisation theory tells us anything then it tells us that as a middle class develops, the people in it have more to lose and begin to demand more of their rulers. China has changed remarkably of late and that is precisely what is beginning to happen. This sits uneasily with the calls by the CCP for “stability and harmony” that come out of Beijing. The behaviour of the princelings is but one symptom of a much bigger underlying problem.