If there’s one thing the Chinese government fears more than an uncontrollable economic slowdown, it’s that the vast middle class will demand to have their voices heard—all 300 million of them. And just to make things more interesting, there’s a good chance that a slowdown will accelerate the middle class demand for control over their lives.
Over the past few months, a number of sizable protests across China’s heavily populated eastern coast are causing serious alarm among senior officials, according to Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley. No major moral transgression provoked the most recent public outburst; ordinary people are apparently sick and tired of witnessing just how privileged top party members are. The New York Times reports:
Thousands of people threw water bottles and blocked traffic at a popular nature preserve in northeastern China on Sunday after word spread that the arrival of top Communist Party leaders was causing an hours-long wait to visit a scenic lake…
The infuriated crowd surrounded the vehicles carrying the government entourage and refused to let them pass, according to scores of microblog posts sent out by those waiting to ascend Changbai Mountain in Jilin Province. The three-hour standoff drew police officers and soldiers, some of whom reportedly beat recalcitrant protesters.
The same kind of anger is growing in Beijing: The official death count from the recent flooding in the capital has been raised to 77 after the Chinese public grew progressively more furious with the government’s suspiciously low preliminary tally (37). A rare apology and promises to improve flood protection services soon followed from the city government.
Unlike the Tienanmen protesters, today’s rebels aren’t building a Statue of Liberty or all converging on the same place in downtown Beijing. Today’s protesters are often focused on local, specific grievances; demonstration pop up in city after city, often in response to provocative behavior by local officials.
China has changed since 1989. In 2012, after three decades of economic reforms have brought more than 200 million Chinese out of poverty, people want a more open and just society—something that can’t be measured by GDP. Many average Chinese families now have the 100 yuan to pay the ticket to visit the natural park, but they still don’t want to wait hours for party officials who cut the line.
And with the gloomy economic climate, a steady deluge of 300 million water bottles could wear thin on the Communist Party.