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China’s spoilt brats and America’s disappearing middle class

20 September 2011

She's got her own BMW too

Regular Insights blogger Brian Keeley is in Beijing, from where he sends this dispatch.

A recent afternoon brought one of those classes that all lecturers dread: Glazed eyes from one side of the room to the other, and mouths opening and closing in syncopated yawning. Time to tear up the lesson plan and throw out a question: “Hey, did you see the story about the rich kid who beat up that nice couple?” Dull eyes sharpen, slack jaws tighten. Yes, the students have heard about it and, what’s more, they have something to say.

In case you missed the story, here’s what happened: On a recent evening, a middle-class couple was driving home in Beijing. Quite reasonably, they slowed to take a corner, forcing a couple of cars behind them to stop. Incensed, the drivers of the two following cars got out and beat them up.

Road rage, but that was only the half of it: It turned out that one of the drivers was just 15 years old, which meant he was driving his car – a BMW – illegally. Not only that, he warned onlookers against intervening: “Who dares to call the police?” he supposedly shouted. His cockiness can probably be explained by his family connections: The boy is the son of a celebrity army general, Li Shuangjiang, who shows up regularly on TV to sing patriotic ditties.

In the wake of the incident, Major-General Li was put through the media wringer. He visited his son’s victims in hospital, apologized abjectly, and said of the boy, “I didn’t him give a good upbringing.” As for Li junior, Chinese media reports that he’ll go to a correctional facility for a year, but will escape criminal charges because of his age.

The affair was startlingly reminiscent of another incident last year, when the well-connected son of a senior security officer knocked down and killed a university student. That young man, too, shouted a warning to onlookers: “My father is Li Gang.” His words became a national catchphrase, epitomizing what many Chinese seem to feel is the attitude of an arrogant elite that feels itself above the law. 

Certainly, that was the feeling of most of my students. But there was a second strand of opinion: They felt that media reporting of these incidents, and subsequent online commentary, was sensationalist and served no bigger purpose than stirring up bitterness and resentment. “The media should ask itself, ‘why are we reporting this?’,” said one student. “It should think about the bigger social question, and try to make China better.” That, of course, was one of the traditional role assigned to the media by the Chinese Communist Party. But in today’s China, it’s sensationalism – not worthiness – that sells papers.

As for the “bigger social question,” the student isn’t alone in seeing the incident as symptomatic of more than just Beijing’s awful road manners. Many in China worry about the impact of widening inequality on social stability, even if these concerns are expressed in careful language. But whenever you hear China’s leaders referring to the need for a “harmonious society,” it’s usually inequality that’s being talked about.

China was not the only country that got a reminder last week of the risks of “unharmoniousness”. In the United States, there was fresh evidence of how society there has been reshaped over the past decade or so. The middle class, once the solid core of American life, is being hollowed out, leaving a class structure that’s now shaped more like an hourglass. Indeed, some retailers have reportedly rejigged their product lines to focus on either the top, or the bottom, of the economic pile.

The impact of this social shift goes beyond determining what’s on Walmart’s shelves. As the historian John Gray notes, there’s a real danger in undermining the middle class (a risk first identified by Karl Marx): “In the process of [capitalism’s] creative destruction,” says Gray, “the ladder has been kicked away, and for increasing numbers of people a middle-class existence is no longer even an aspiration.” The result, he argues, is the destruction of “the way of life on which capitalism in the past depended”.

That’s not true of China, or at least not yet. The middle class may be under pressure in many developed countries, but in China it’s growing by leaps and bounds. But as Gray suggests – and as the financial crisis of the past few years has shown – the economic impact of capitalism’s forces are less easy to tame than we might wish. And as recent news from both China and the United States suggests, their effect on our societies can be just as tricky to manage.

Find out more

OECD work on income distribution and poverty

Growing Unequal

Perspectives on Global Development

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