In the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, some Western pundits suggested that army factions might rebel against China’s central government. Living in Taiwan, where emotions were at a pitch, I felt this outcome to be plausible, perhaps even desirable.
Over the decades since, I’ve watched commentators, many on my own conservative side of the spectrum, offer cheery dreams of the imminent collapse of communist power, or at least hopes that the facade would drop off a few storefronts of the Potemkin village. While I was living in South-Central China a few years back, a friend cited one such source from North America, and informed me that the “peasants” in inland China were desperate and half-starving. I replied that I’d walked past a “peasant” home that very afternoon, and found the family out washing the car and having a water fight. Over time, I have grown jaded in the face of flamboyantly expressed doubts that China can survive in its current political form.
Joel Kotkin’s recent Quillette essay, China’s Looming Class Struggle, may not appear quite so flamboyant as others. He offers much that is true about modern China, including his recognition of the country’s enormous progress, and the irony of sharply re-emerging class divides in a country led by an allegedly “communist” party. I share Kotkin’s skepticism about the present regime and many of its heavy-handed, self-serving and often worrisome stances. But China does not face an imminent peasant-proletarian revolution, or anything like it. Certain facts must be faced if one wishes to formulate realistic policy, because the rise of China does offer a serious and ineluctable challenge to the present international order.
* * *
Kotkin claims to foresee a “real existential threat” to the present Chinese regime among the “very classes that gave [it] birth.” That would primarily be the peasant class, which Mao Zedong, Marxist heretic that he was, relied on in lieu of an almost non-existent industrial proletariat to overthrow the Nationalist government. Kotkin warns that Beijing must reform or risk some sort of cataclysm involving this peasant class acting in vague alliance with poor migrant workers, perhaps even stirring up violent rebellion. He cites the analogy of the 19th-Century Taiping Rebellion to explain what the present regime might face: Chinese history “consists largely of an interplay between hierarchical regimes and occasionally rebellious peasants.” The more complicated mix that constitutes the modern underclass, Kotkin warns, forms a “volcano” whose molten fury the new ruling class is struggling to keep bottled underground with a mix of high-tech surveillance and promises of economic development.
But there are problems with Kotkin’s thesis, involving his description of those opposing classes, the nature of revolution, and, most of all, conditions in modern China.
Kotkin claims that about half a billion Chinese citizens are still peasants. Counting farmers in China these days is indeed tricky business. Should we include my landlords, who still grow a few beans on the hillside behind the massive apartment complex that occupies their former village, from which they likely derive most of their livelihood? My taxi driver, who when he’s not driving customers to work and griping about corruption, tends to a peanut patch or two? Or former neighbors in central China, who rent fields to outsiders to grow lotus and vegetables—and before whose nice new homes, rising next to the dilapidated mud structures their parents once lived in, two or three cars are sometimes drawn up?
True, most Chinese farmers are still quite poor by western standards, or those of their city-mouse kin. But one cannot compare the peasant masses of the 19th Century to anything found in modern China. For the first time in thousands of years, most Chinese are not farmers and do not live off the land (as Kotkin admits). Furthermore, the farming minority that remains is disproportionately elderly and scattered in the most mountainous and distant reaches of China. A one-child policy remained in effect until recently, and that one child often is in the city making earrings, like the lady I met on the subway yesterday, who spoke of her peasant-family past as of a distant dark age. Or they are delivering packages on scooters, manning coffee bars, or, yes, pounding away at the new high-rises that sprout in every major (and many minor) cities, as well as the subway and bullet-train lines that connect them.
In the mountains of Yunnan, private cars are still rare: You’re more likely to see a young member of the Lahu and Kachin minorities on a motorcycle, often with a tribal girl with one arm around him and the other holding her mobile screen, racing down mountain roads. (When the millennial apocalypse dawns in China, will teenagers look up from their screens long enough to notice?) Ethnic minorities typically were allowed more than one child, so the demography in such regions tends to skew younger. But even if most peasants were of an age for rebellion (which they are not) and inclined to rebel (which doesn’t appear to be the case), the logistics of gathering such scattered, increasingly elderly forces from thousands of valleys would render success problematic. Moreover, despite relative poverty, “rural people on average have higher levels of life satisfaction than do migrant or urban residents” according to a 2018 article in China Economic Review. That bodes well for China’s stability, but not for Kotkin’s thesis.
Will the semi-urbanized class of migrant workers and “feudalized” factory workers lead Kotkin’s revolution? How about the million underpaid, mistreated employees of Foxxcon, which makes many of our phones? The hundreds of millions of migrant workers who toil in Chinese cities without a hukou, or residence permit, and earn (Kotkin reports) a mere $63 for a 60-hour work-week, or about ¥ 2,000 (a princely sum when the two of us first visited China, but no longer)?
That would seem like a recipe for a restive population. But Kotkin’s figures are not typical, and his understanding of the hukou system does not seem universally applicable. Wages have almost doubled in the five years since I returned to China. In my city, a young man without a residence permit can make ¥ 2,000 per week making deliveries on a moped. Or if he’s less ambitious, he can earn that same sum in two weeks as a guard. An experienced construction worker can make ¥ 9,000 a month, or about $300 per week. This may not sound like much to readers in the West, but it helps explain the traffic that now jams Chinese cities.
Foxconn set up a factory in the city of Hengyang in southern Hunan precisely because the place is a bit of a backwater. It often hires young people with few skills, and pays them less than half of Hengyang’s average wage. When I first arrived in Asia, that formula perfectly fit the working poor in Taiwan and even Hong Kong, now one of the wealthiest cities in the world. But farmers now produce better fruit, and carpenters work with better tools, and economic horizons appear to many to be broadening, not constricting. The muscles that move Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” have been flexing visibly since Deng Xiaoping opened the door to business with the outside world.
Kotkin’s notion of traditional Chinese revolution also is problematic. China was, he says, periodically convulsed by peasant revolutions, among which that of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in the 19th Century was the “most serious” in history, inspiring in turn both the Nationalists and the Communists. One might think that the rebellions that founded the Song and Ming dynasties, which lasted for centuries, were pretty serious. But putting that aside, the old Marxist idealization of spontaneous outbursts of peasant outrage—on which Kotkin possibly bases his prediction of coming foment—always was simplistic. Both in China and elsewhere, revolutionary movements generally have been led by highly educated ideologues. Sun Yat-Sen, who founded the Nationalist revolution, was a doctor, and many of his leading followers belonged to China’s tiny (at the time) Christian minority. Mao was the son of a prosperous farmer, but became educated, urbanized and radicalized into the anti-theology of Marxism after his move to Changsha. Even the West’s own Occupy Wall Street movement drew heavily from academic ranks, with one study showing that more than a fifth of responding protesters worked in education (mostly in higher education), and that the majority were fairly wealthy.
As with Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, the Taiping Rebellion was led by a teacher. Taiping founder Hong Xiuquan studied the Confucian classics as an ambitious would-be mandarin; then, having failed in that goal, his fevered subconscious cooked up an esoteric blend of neo-Confucianism, folk theism focused on a Zeus-like Jade Emperor figure, and garbled reformist Protestant teachings, focused heavily on the Old Testament. Hong saw his God-given mission as killing “demons” whom he identified with China’s Manchu overlords.
As described by Jonathan Spence, Vincent Shih, and other historians, early 19th-Century Qing China was a socio-political pot at full boil. The Manchus were an imperialist power, China a twice-colonized nation under its control, and experiencing heavy pressure from Europeans. Many of China’s most educated citizens were addicted to opium. The Heaven and Earth and other secret societies periodically sponsored mass violence, adapting Confucian morality and the Mandate of Heaven to justify what might seem the anti-Confucian act of revolution. Bandits fortified little cities in the mountains.
Modern China is nothing like that. The elite may be obnoxious, but they are members of the mainland’s 90%-plus Han Chinese majority, for the most part. The central government controls pretty much every square inch of the country. China is winning gold medals at the Olympics and building infrastructure in Africa. Walk into the hills around my city, where pine and locust trees are vulnerable to fire in the dry winter, and you will see automatic sensors monitoring any movements. A modern-day Taiping recruiter would be hard-pressed to find bandit cities in those mountains.
Today’s China still faces deep problems, some of which Kotkin describes. But it also offers more liberal nations a challenge that cannot be daydreamed away, and that is only likely to grow. Given China’s present stability, its well-educated, ambitious and hard-working population, and the continuing international diffusion of technology, the West simply does not have enough fingers to plug the dike and prevent the socioeconomic waters on opposing sides of the civilizational gap from finding a rough level. America’s 330-million people cannot permanently out-produce and out-earn China’s 1.4-billion. And seldom has the world seen a great power that strictly minded its own business, especially when that power was in its ascendancy.
What matters to Chinese of all classes is national pride. Ordinary Chinese will not endure being disrespected again by outside powers, as by the British, then the Japanese (or Manchus, going back further). But it’s also important to remember that China has contributed much to world civilization in the past, and has not usually been particularly militaristic. If the communists did not have the record they do, and if Xi Jinping did not seem to take Nineteen Eighty-Four as his instruction manual (oddly, it’s available in book stores here), perhaps the world community would feel more at ease at the changing of the geopolitical guard. It is worrisome to see a newly emerging hegemon bulldozing churches, locking up Muslims, making friends of the world’s nastiest regimes, and worrying its neighbors with fortified artificial islands and aggressive troop exercises.
Speaking of the deceptive power of water, which over time bends rivers and wears down mountains, ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi advised rulers to “show no force, and thus rule all.” Today, this might be called a mantra of “soft power.” The soft power of freedom, like water, still attracts China’s citizenry, especially the middle class. Their leaders may have already found that geopolitical bullying will push China’s neighbors toward the West. China should be most concerned about the effect that its self-assertions may have on India, a nation whose population is due to surpass China’s own, and whose economy is also following an upward (if somewhat lagging) trajectory.
Kotkin claims that “an all-powerful state, authoritarian ideology, a dependent middle class, and an exploited, marginalized, controlled lower order have been features throughout China’s history.” My read of Chinese history is more complex. If we wish to build a constructive alliance with the Chinese people of all classes, there is much to appeal to within Chinese tradition that can provide patriotic justification for limited government and even pluralism. Laozi, the founder of philosophical Taoism, has been marginalized by the regime, perhaps for his nascent libertarianism. But even Confucius, whom the government tells school children formed the “mainstream” of traditional Chinese culture, showed some laissez-faire instincts
Maybe this represents wishful thinking on my part. But I think quiet, patient strength, along with the forging of alliances both within and outside of China, will be more effective than the confrontational rhetoric of some fellow conservatives, and more realistic than neo-Marxist notions of a peasant revolt sparked by octogenarians allied with their delivery-boy grandchildren.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.