China's Looming Class Struggle
Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash

China's Looming Class Struggle

Joel Kotkin
Joel Kotkin
10 min read

Westerners tend to identify China’s coming political crisis with developments such as the brave, educated, and often English-speaking protests in Hong Kong. Although they undoubtably pose an annoyance to Xi Jinping’s regime, the real existential challenge to the regime derives not from China’s middle orders but from the very classes that gave birth to the Communist regime.

As someone who has been to China many times over the last 40 years, I acknowledge that the achievements of the reformed socialist regime are nothing short of astounding. Beijing’s streets, once crowded with horse-drawn carts, rickety bicycles, and people dressed in ragged Mao jackets, now accommodate Audis, shopping malls, and slickly attired hipsters. Urban Chinese are no longer so impressed by New York or even Tokyo; their country is home to five of the tallest buildings in the world.

Yet this remarkable growth has come at the expense of China’s supposedly egalitarian ethos. Since 1978 the country’s GINI ratings—a system that measures inequality—have gone from highly egalitarian to more unequal than Mexico, Brazil, and Kenya, as well as the United States and virtually all of Europe. In avowedly socialist China, roughly 1300 individuals constitute roughly 20 percent of the country’s wealth, and top one percent roughly one-third.

Initially, China’s progress lifted up all classes, raising as many as 850 million people out of extreme poverty in 40 years, one of the greatest economic accomplishments in history. Yet the boom has been less successful in creating a Western-style mass middle class which analyst Nan Chen estimates at roughly 12 percent of the population. “Rather than replicating the middle-class growth of post-World War II America,” she observes, “China appears to have skipped that stage altogether and headed straight for a model of extraordinary productivity but disproportionately distributed wealth.”

The Migrant Time-Bomb

Overall, two-thirds of all Chinese are either migrant laborers, peasants, industrial workers, or agriculture laborers—all groups unlikely to make it into the Chinese middle class by Chinese standards.1 Many work in the migrant labor force, roughly 250 million strong. These workers trekked from small towns and rural areas in order to bus tables, work on construction sites, and otherwise undertake the tasks that more fortunate Chinese with urban hukou or resident permits generally do not choose to perform.

This migration has been driven by the poor conditions suffered by over 400 million rural residents. In America, rural households are on average 4 percent poorer than urban households in China. The much-vaunted Chinese middle class is almost entirely a phenomenon of those with urban hukou, while the 40 percent of the population in the countryside struggles.

These migrants threaten to swell into a massive, and potentially politically disruptive, urban underclass. As notes Leeds University’s Li Sun has noted, Chinese migrants unable to claim residency in the city generally lack access to education, healthcare, and most forms of insurance. Although they perform many of the most dangerous tasks in society, notably manufacturing and construction, barely one in four has any form of insurance if they get injured. But they are largely excluded from other, less dangerous jobs.2

China, notes Li Sun, may be “the world’s factory,” but much of the work is performed by these largely unprotected migrants—a million work for Foxconn, the manufacture of iPhone, alone. China’s great wealth derives, she points out, from a “worker-made” economy of people who labor 60-hour weeks for barely US$63 a week pay, reprising the role played for millennia by peasants, who provided the wealth of the Middle Kingdom but benefited little from it.3

Breezing into Beijing or Shanghai, most Westerners are unaware of even the existence of this vast population. A recent trip took me to a large migrant settlement beyond Beijing’s fifth ring road. Rather than sparkling new high rises, this district consisted largely of small jerry-rigged shacks and buildings. The streets are dusty, animals lie in the midday sun, and men, off from work, line up at a house that, everyone acknowledges, accommodates the world’s oldest profession. It is like a flashback to the China of 40 years ago, a poor country where many struggled to eke out the most basic existence.

To date, these workers have not been able to make themselves heard. Union membership in China is essentially worthless, as unions must conform the party’s priorities. Apple, for example, manufactures most of its products in China; conditions have been linked both to strikes and several suicides by workers claiming to be treated no better than robots. Yet neither China’s government nor the world’s premier smartphone brand, which has also collaborated with the party bosses in Hong Kong, has felt compelled to meet their demands.

The Pliant Middle Class

This vast class of poor and often powerless migrants, peasants, and factory workers represents a far greater threat to the Chinese regime than isolated intellectuals on the mainland or even the brave protesters in Hong Kong. Chinese history lacks examples of successful rebellions launched by a middle class informed with democratic ideals; no equivalent to the distinctly bourgeois American Revolution, the French Third Estate’s drive to destroy feudalism, or even a reformist movement akin to Japan’s Meiji Restoration.

Instead, Chinese history consists largely of an interplay between hierarchical regimes and occasionally rebellious peasants. The most serious uprising took place during the 1843 Taiping rebellion against the Manchu dynasty, which resulted in the deaths of upwards of 20 million people. Some of the Taiping program would later be adopted by Sun Yat-Sen, who would overthrow the imperial regime, and by the Communists in their successful drive to power.

Today, however, it’s the Communists who are the new Manchus, running a well-honed bureaucratic regime allied to a powerful capitalist class. Rather than rule by proletarians and peasants, the leadership is increasingly dominated by so-called “red princelings,” such as President Xi himself, who trace their roots to generals and top officials of the initial Maoist regime. Even the entrepreneurial class, a force for reform in many cultures, has been subsumed by the Communist Mandarins. Some 90 percent of China’s millionaires, notes Australian political scientist David Goodman, are the offspring of high-ranking officials.

This alliance with the Communists extends to the far more populous and well-established professional and managerial classes, which staffs the bureaucracies of the all-powerful party-dominated state.4 Goodman suggests that, rather than run to the barricades, these fortunate individuals would likely oppose any democratic transition that could allow the less privileged masses to threaten their status. Even those students who study in the United States and elsewhere in the West tend to support the existing system, as it will benefit them when they return. Certainly they seem to have little affinity with the Hong Kong protests, widely seen as hostile to mainlanders; having never tasted the pleasures of rule of law and free expression, the Chinese middle orders seem largely unmoved by protests designed to protect them.

Prospects for the Proletariat

Given these factors, the most serious long-term threat to the Chinese regime stems from the lower classes. Like laborers elsewhere, these workers are faced with a broader global trend of weakened prospects and fewer protections, such as those provided by the Maoist-era “iron rice bowl.”

These workers are particularly vulnerable to China’s slowing economic growth rate—in 2018, its growth rate was 6 percent, 50 percent below the 9 percent average since 1989—and stagnant industrial production, now at the lowest level since 2004. Similarly, the government’s announced focus on services and advanced technology, away from construction and manufacturing, which is a primary target of the Trump trade policy, does not benefit them due to the generally poor quality of education in rural areas.

Many migrants are seeing their futures circumscribed by being driven out of the country’s richest cities. Beijing and Shanghai, have been declared “full” and even second-tier provincial capitals like Chengdu are increasingly pushing out the poor. Lower class Chinese, notes scholar Salvatore Barbones, face “exclusion” that is “in danger of ossifying into something resembling a permanent caste system.” For the migrants, this means they are not only unable to work, but, due to evictions, are faced with becoming homeless.

Even the resident urban working class is threatened. In Maggie Shen King’s novel An Excess Male, set just a few years from now, a longtime Beijing resident recalls the brutal displacement of old neighborhoods, and the blocks of hutong, courtyard houses, once common in the capital:

Stately eight- and ten-lane boulevards crisscross the city and we rarely walk down one without … pointing out that countless properties were seized, and lives disrupted, [or] in the most egregious cases, cut short to make possible their construction. Relegated to tiny stacked boxes, ordinary citizens pour into parks and scenic streets, thirsting for open air and elbowroom, so that our leaders could have their show of grandeur.5

Increasingly, this vast proletariat is beginning to assume the character of a lumpen class. Like their counterparts in rustbelt America, many of these workers suffer serious social dysfunction, in part due to the need to separate from their families to work in the big cities. According to researcher Li Sun, this has created 60 million “left behind children” and another 58 million “left behind elderly.”6

Cut off from their families and the company of women, they suffer rates of venereal disease far higher than the national norms. Scott Rozelle, a professor at Stanford University, found that most kids left behind in the rural villages are sick or malnourished and up to two-thirds struggle with combinations of anemia, worms, and uncorrected myopia that set them back at school. More than half the toddlers, he predicts, are so cognitively delayed their IQs will never exceed 90—portending a future as the gammas and epsilons of Huxley’s Brave New World.7

Are China’s Communists “Sleeping on a Volcano”?

Tocqueville, speaking of the nineteenth century European working class, accurately predicted that the continent’s elites were “sleeping on a volcano.” This same reality could emerge in China, where there is evidence of growing labor unrest, particularly among the new generation of migrants. In recent years, migrants have protested both evictions from cities as well as labor conditions, although activists often find themselves prosecuted for threatening “the social order.” These protests have been encouraged by Marxist study groups at universities, whose working class advocacy conflicts with the policies imposed by the nominally socialist government, raising the ire of embarrassed party officials.

President Xi and the party apparatus have pledged to address class anger, particularly among migrants, with proposals to shift production away from expensive cities and into the hardscrabble interior. “We don’t want social conflicts to turn into a social crisis,” one high level party strategist told me at a private dinner in Beijing. He believed President Xi’s commitment to creating a “moderately prosperous society” is designed, in part, to prevent a modern version of Taiping, or the initial Communist insurgency.

This includes an attempt to revive the Maoist ethos which celebrates the primacy of workers and peasants. But their model is less Marxist than something that resembles, as the late Japanese futurist Taichi Sakaiya put it, “high tech feudalism.” This also includes a campaign to promote the hierarchical values associated with China’s feudal past. Party officials increasingly promote the embrace of folk religions and even the very Confucianism so reviled by the People’s Republic’s founders. The cadres have decided out that old virtues, like honesty, filial obedience, and respect for hierarchy have their uses in the modern age.

Beyond reviving the past, the government also relies on using the technology of the future. They have promoted the use of facial recognition systems designed to modulate behavior in ways approved by the state. By 2020, China is expected to deploy over 400 million surveillance cameras in cities across the country. There are now efforts nationwide to harvest biometric data, track smartphones, and install compulsory satellite-tracking systems for vehicles. Brain monitoring devices are becoming increasingly common in Chinese factories, ostensibly to improve productivity but actually to tap into and shape the thoughts of their potentially rebellious workers. As MIT researcher Christina Larson puts it, “who needs democracy when you have data?”

The Future of Class in China

An all-powerful state, authoritarian ideology, a dependent middle class, and an exploited, marginalized, controlled lower order have been features throughout China’s history. The inevitability of expanded social control constitutes a constant theme in modern Chinese science fiction novels and short stories; the future they envision does not include the development of a democratic, self-governing state, with a commitment to equality and rule of law.

Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing lays out the future of a megacity divided into closely delineated communities for the elite, the middle ranks, and a vast poor population, living largely by recycling the waste generated by the city.8 Han Song’s clever The Passengers and the Creator speaks of a world contained within an airplane—with strict designations between first, second, and coach class. The velvet curtain that separates First Class, Han writes, is “soft” but “as impenetrable as iron.” In this world, the wealthy aged live in comfort and can call on the services of young flight attendants recruited from coach.

Writers have also predicted a dismal future for the country’s countryside, where many of the some 600 million rural Chinese still live in relative poverty. Liu Cixin’s The Village Schoolteacher describes a place “so poor that a bird wouldn’t shit on it.” Mao’s revolution may have been driven by the peasants, but President Xi’s “ moderately prosperous society” is seen as something that promises them little.

Ultimately, finding ways to accommodate the rumbling of the working class and the peasantry may be the only way China’s rulers can avoid the fate of their feudal and Nationalist predecessors. The contradiction between the regime’s egalitarian rhetoric and the social reality is simply too great to ignore without threatening the existence of the system itself.

Being able to improve the lives of the people was always seen as a critical element assuring the Imperial “mandate of heaven.” Right now, the Communist regime seems more interested in surpassing the West in elite industries and building grandiose urban landscapes. But if they fail to address the needs of hundreds of millions of their own poor, the consequences could prove profound, not only for China but the world.


1 David Goodman, Class in Contemporary China / Edition 1. p. 6, p35, p.42, p.98
2 Li Sun, Rural Migration and Policy Intervention in China, Palgrave Publishing, (Singapore: 2019), pvi. Pp.2-4; Goodman, op. cit., pp.161-2
3 Li Sun, op cit, pp. 3-4; Goodman op. cit., p.124
4 Goodman, op. cit., pp.156-157;p.180-1
5 Maggie Shen King, An Excess Male, Harper, (New York:2017), p.11
6 Li Sun, op.cit., pp31-3
7; Li Sun, op. cit., p.133
8 Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order,Houghton Mifflin (Boston:2018), p141;  Hao Jingfang, “Folding Beijing” in Invisible Planets, edited and translated by Ken Liu, Tor, (New York: 2016), pp. 221-262

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Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His most recent book is 'The Coming of Neo-Feudalism.'