Global Futures in East Asia
Youth, Nation, and the New Economy in Uncertain Times
Stanford University Press Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
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The Middle-Class Norm and Responsible Consumption in China's Risk Society
China's neoliberalization, a process known in China as "reform and opening" (gaige kaifang), which began in the late 1970s, has extracted individuals from the social institutions developed in socialism and reembedded them within a new sociopolitical system. The embrace of a neoliberal economic and political system, with all its attendant risks, has forced the development of new governmental and social policies to stabilize China's growing inequality through the conceptual category of the middle class. Within this historical context, life-making and life-building take the form of self-formation but only in such a way that they become measured by the new social norm of the middle class. I draw from my ethnographic fieldwork in Beijing to examine how individuals transform themselves into entrepreneurial subjects through consumer practices and how private corporations play an important role in cultivating middle-class values and shaping consumer behavior. As is the case with other social engineering projects discussed in this book, such as the training of migrant women workers to fit China's neoliberal development (Yan, Chapter Six in this volume), the making of responsible middleclass subjects through consumption is part of the government's larger project of engineering a new society for the future.
Neoliberalization, Risk Society, and the Middle Class
Contemporary Chinese society has been transformed into a risk society, in which individuals and nongovernmental organizations take over responsibilities once assigned to the government. This shift has been tied to China's neoliberalization, the transformation of China from a socialist country to a neoliberal state, which refers to both the Chinese nation-state under a hybrid capitalist-socialist system and to China as a country where economic rationalism penetrates all aspects of society, including domains such as the political and the cultural that are usually incommensurable or incompatible with the economic realm (Ren 2010a). China's neoliberal transformation has occurred largely through establishing a relationship between "reform and opening" and national reunification, two seemingly parallel historical agendas of the socialist state since the late 1970s. The former entails various national development projects addressing the modernization (xiandaihua) of the economy, culture, technology, and state–society relationship. The reunification issue revolves around the status of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
The Chinese government's reform and opening project has allowed the development of new kinds of productive enterprises that are neither state controlled nor collectively owned. This policy change contradicts both the policies of Mao Zedong's socialist government, which had eliminated all forms of private ownership and their associated productive relations, and the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the ruling party of China founded on commitment to the causes and interests of the working class. To resolve these contradictions, Deng Xiaoping's government declared in 1978 that the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) had been a complete failure and had caused chaos in the Chinese state. Deng's repudiation of Mao's legacy opened up possibilities for rejecting Maoist practices (including prohibition of private ownership). Building on this decision, Deng and his successors gradually modified the Communist Party constitution and incorporated key changes as amendments to the national constitution.
In 1998, Jiang Zemin, the secretary general of the CCP and the president of China, asked the party members to propose a theoretical structure for a new system of political representation. In February 2000, he proclaimed the "Three Represents" (sange daibiao) in which the CCP represents "the developmental requirement of the advanced productive forces in China," "the progressive direction of the advanced culture in China," and "the fundamental interest of the vast majority of the people." In 2003, the Third Plenum of the Sixteenth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China formally incorporated this theory into the revised party constitution. Meanwhile, the Chinese government formally changed its English translation from the Chinese Communist Party to the Communist Party of China (CPC). Therefore, when the Three Represents and property rights became formally institutionalized, the transformation of the Communist Party–led state from a state of the working classes to one of the capitalist class (including the nouveaux riches) was completed (Ren 2010b).
Meanwhile, the reincorporation of capitalist Hong Kong into socialist China has done what no other contemporary event could have done: It provided both the historical precondition for and the primary process of China's radical neoliberal transformation. Under British rule, Hong Kong was recognized not simply as a capitalist economy but as one of the freest market economies in the world. The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 that set out the conditions for Hong Kong's return to China called for Hong Kong to retain its capitalist system and a measure of political autonomy for a period of fifty years, a provision commonly referred to as "one country, two systems" (yiguo liangzhi) and viewed by the Chinese as a potentially long-term arrangement. This framework was first proposed by Deng Xiaoping during the Sino-British negotiation process. It was extended to create various types of special economic and political zones, enabling the practical coexistence between socialist and capitalist spaces. Thus, the legal framework of one country, two systems, on being translated into political and economic practices in China, shaped the transformation of the Chinese state into a neoliberal state. By casting reunification as an uncompromisable issue of national sovereignty, the Chinese government made this a default justification for all political, economic, social, and cultural changes. That is, reunification with Hong Kong demanded the supreme power of sovereignty to act ethically by not abiding by existing (Maoist) socialist norms and laws. Thus, anything incompatible with regaining sovereignty over Hong Kong was to be modified, changed, or rejected—including Maoist forms of mobilizing and empowering ordinary people, political representation of the working class, socialist productive relations, economic policies, and nationalism (Ren 2010a; 2010b; 2012).
The spatial production of neoliberal social space followed Deng's theory of one country, two systems. This is shown by the creation of a series of four special economic zones (beginning in 1980) in Guangdong and Fujian provinces, where nonsocialist systems—not only private markets but also private controls over the economy and the population—were developed. In 1984, the year of the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the government expanded the special economic zone concept to another fourteen coastal cities and to Hainan Island. In the 1990s, many priority development regions and export processing zones were established across the country. In 1997, Hong Kong became the first special administrative region of the People's Republic of China, and two years later Macau became the second. Each region is supposed to operate for fifty years according to its own miniconstitution.
Similar to the idea of the special economic zone is the proliferation of numerous privately controlled zones through urban real estate development projects. Some past and present Communist Party officials and their relatives (for example, Chen Xitong and Chen Lianyu, members of the politburo) could use their access to political capital and networks for accruing wealth in the new economy. For them, neoliberal policies like privatization of land use offered a horizon of freedom to pursue the good life, whether in terms of a "relatively comfortable life" (xiaokang shenghuo), in Deng Xiaoping's words, or a lifestyle oriented toward cosmopolitan or international norms. Zhang Yuchen's prior status as the head of Beijing's construction bureau, for example, gave him the opportunity to accumulate vast wealth (Kahn 2004). By contrast, those who lacked access to social and political capital were affected negatively by privatization and the erosion of social welfare institutions. As their life chances were diminished, they become marginalized as subjects in need, whether as landless peasants or laid-off workers.
During China's neoliberal transformation, the foundation of Chinese state sovereignty has shifted away from the collective body of the people and toward the individual body of the citizen. The ways in which individuals become socialized as Chinese citizens have changed significantly. Not only are the institutional structures of socialist China disappearing, but forms of practical knowledge, common sense, and guiding norms associated with socialism are no longer legitimate or empowering tools. Increasingly, Chinese citizens are expected to rely on themselves in their life-building process. This life-building process, however, does not presume a straightforward, upward, or progressive trajectory, which is based on a will-have-been of future anteriority (Berlant 2007: 758). Its outcomes are more conditional and contingent. Thus, the neoliberal do-it-yourself biographical process includes not merely positive trajectories but also delayed, regressive, or sidetracked ones.
For example, the socialist work unit (danwei) was not only a workplace but also an entire welfare system (Yi Wang 2003; Bray 2005). It provided employment, housing, child care, health care, and education. However, the neoliberal reforms, especially of the state-owned enterprises that employed the majority of the workers, have systematically reduced the state's welfare function with the withering away of these work units and the social networks formed through them. Some individuals have taken advantage of new opportunities to become active participants in the market. Meanwhile, millions of laid-off workers face new challenges of making a living. Some have been retrained to take temporary and part-time employment, such as domestic help and service sector jobs, while others have become permanently unemployed or underemployed because they are unable to compete either with the growing number of young migrant laborers from rural areas (Pun 2005) or with new college graduates with greater knowledge of the norms of international business and work practices (Ross 2006: 18).
The neoliberal transformation of the Chinese state has led some Chinese scholars to consider its consequences. The Chinese economist Yu Wenlie, for example, mentioned four major problems in 2004:
1. The increasing gap between the rich and the poor presents a challenge to the socialist distribution system (fenpei zhidu).
2. The privatization of state-owned enterprises and "state-owned assets" (guoyou zichan) damages the socialist "collective ownership system" (gongyouzhi).
3. The government's "malfunctioning" or "misbehavior" (shiwei) in the market damage the socialist market economic system.
4. "The urban-rural twofold economic structure" (cheng xiang eryuan jingji jiegou) and the increasing economic disparities among regions damage the balanced development of the national economy. (2004: 20)
These shifts have turned Chinese society from one of the world's most equal societies to one of the most unequal. China has become a risk society in which responsibility for employment, welfare, education, health, poverty alleviation, and environment have become redistributed from government to nongovernmental organizations and from the collective to the individual.
During China's neoliberal transformation, governmental and social policies have shifted from regarding peasants and workers as model citizens to "disadvantaged groups" (ruoshi qunti). Their lack of various kinds of capital (political, economic, and cultural), unequally redistributed during the economic reforms (Yi Wang 2003; Li 2003; Xiao 2003), has made them less able to take responsibility for livelihood, health care, and education. Forming the largest segment of China's population, they are viewed as a threat to the stability of Chinese society in case of a state emergency, such as an economic or political crisis or even a crisis of biosecurity, as in the case of an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or avian flu. To address these problems of security, government officials, policy experts, and scholars advocate for the growth of a middle class (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences [CASS] 2002; Hu 2003; He 2003; Qin 2003) as necessary for balancing the contradictions between economic growth and social stability produced by neoliberal reforms. They attribute a stabilizing power to the middle class in addressing such issues as social inequality, aspirational life ways, and civic discipline. Although the middle class is still statistically small in size, it is anticipated to grow to become the predominant social class so that the pyramidal shape of the present social structure will be transformed into the ideal olive shape (CASS 2002).
The conceptualization of the category of the middle class to address the structural problem of Chinese society has built on an extensive sociological and journalistic literature on China's new class strata since the early 1990s. Many of these studies were proleptic in nature: representing something that has not yet come into view as if it already existed in fact (Anagnost 1997). This figure of prolepsis suggests the performativity and productivity of all the discourse on the middle class. It also marks the practical development of the middle class as a project involving many actors, including governmental and nongovernmental organizations, corporations, educational institutions, and individuals (government officials, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens). The development of the category of the middle class reflects a fundamental policy change in understanding cultural transformations in China's economic reforms (Ren 2007a).
The middle class as a normative category becomes intelligible through systematic uses of statistical surveys by population scientists, state planners, and government bureaucrats. Among many statistical surveys, the most influential one is carried out by some of China's leading sociologists in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Between 1999 and 2001, they conducted the first systematic nationwide sociological study of China's social stratification since the end of the 1970s. The CASS project, under the full support of the central government, surveyed over twelve provinces and seventy-two cities, counties, and districts. Major "findings" were included in a 411-page report, entitled The Report on Social Stratification Research in Contemporary China (Dangdai zhongguo shehui jieceng yanjiu baogao) (CASS 2002) (for an in-depth analysis of this report, see Ren 2010b). A major study like this provides a national standard for developing the category of the middle class through statistical thinking, based on "numerical inscriptions" such as tables, figures, charts, and equations (Greenhalgh 2005: 357).
Beyond abstract statistics, the category of the middle class is primarily used in two ways in popular culture and everyday life. The emerging nouveaux riches (xin furen) have a special interest in advocating for the term middle class, along with associated concepts such as "public sphere" (gong-gong kongjian) and "individualism" (ziyou zhuyi) (X. Wang 1999; Xue 1999; Luo 1999). They use the term middle class to characterize their experience and lifestyle as a "successful person" (chenggong renshi), prototypically portrayed by the mass media as a married middle-aged businessman. He wears designer labels; owns a house with a garden; drives a car; socializes in bars, nightclubs, and hotels; plays golf; and attends concerts (X. Wang 1999: 29). He enjoys a "practical existence" (shizai) of a comfortable life, the "freedom" (ziyou) of consumer choice, a "stylish appearance" (qipai), the "prestige power" (zunyan) of his wealth, and a "cultivated appreciation for the finer things" (mei). Such a celebration of a person's success in achieving middleclass status embraces a cosmopolitan experience at the expense of the Maoist historical experience.
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