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Dr Hyun Bang Shin

April 17th, 2014

Book Review: A Middle Class without Democracy: Economic Growth and the Prospects for Democratization in China by Jie Chen


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Dr Hyun Bang Shin

April 17th, 2014

Book Review: A Middle Class without Democracy: Economic Growth and the Prospects for Democratization in China by Jie Chen


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

In A Middle Class without Democracy, Jie Chen explores attitudinal and behavioural orientation of China’s new middle class to democracy and democratization. Hyun Bang Shin finds that this is a valuable addition to our understanding of the future of Chinese society and politics, and especially of the country’s future prospect of political reform that is perceived not to have progressed as much as the economic reform. It is strongly recommended to observers of China who may wish to find out more about the meaning of middle class expansion in contemporary China.

This book review has been translated into Mandarin by Damion Jeong (LN814, teacher Dr Lijing Shi) as part of the LSE Reviews in Translation project, a collaboration between LSE Language Centre and LSE Review of Books. Please scroll down to read this translation or click here.

A Middle Class without Democracy: Economic Growth and the Prospects for Democratization in China. Jie Chen. Oxford University Press. 2013.

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The relationship between economic development and democratisation is a tricky one. Some may incline towards a unilinear relationship, arguing that greater economic prosperity will facilitate democratisation. Others may argue for a more nuanced view of the relationship, being cautious about the role of specific trajectories of socio-political relations that would influence the course of democratisation. The expansion of a society’s middle class has been recognised as a key but controversial factor in terms of promoting democratisation. On the one hand, it is assumed that the middle class may speed up the process by exerting pressure on the state, informed by their greater awareness of individual rights that may come into conflict with the practices of authoritarian undemocratic states. On the other hand, it is also possible that when the middle class benefits from the economic development spearheaded by authoritarian undemocratic states, the middle class populace may not necessarily challenge the state as long as their material interests are not infringed upon. The experiences of the late industrialising Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and so on testify to the latter perspective.

In contemporary China, the rise of the middle class has been welcomed and actively promoted by the central government that aims to promote the increase in consumption expenditure as the next driver of the country’s economic development. Having benefited mainly from its export-led industrial development and heavy investment in fixed assets including housing and infrastructure, the Chinese government is set to further expand the domestic market, making use of the rapidly growing purchasing power of the middle class to further fuel the country’s development and insulate the national economy from external shocks. While the identification of China’s middle class and the estimation of its size remain subject to varied interpretations, it seems inevitable that the size of China’s middle class will be on the rise in the foreseeable future. Under the circumstances, what will be the future of democracy in China? More specifically, will the middle class demand a political reform to facilitate democratisation? Will the middle class be the major agent of social change in the coming years? These are the questions raised by the author Jie Chen, and his own conclusions indicate that the prospect of China’s middle class being the agent of democratic social change is pessimistic.

The main strength of Chen’s book lies in the presentation of his findings from the representative survey and in-depth interviews carried out in three major cities (Beijing, Chengdu and Xi’an) between late 2007 and early 2008, adding weight to the conclusions drawn from extant studies. The practical methodological issues as well as the theoretical basis for the author’s construction of operational hypotheses are explained in Chapters 1 and 2. In short, the author refrains from using subjective judgement of one’s own class belong or income measures as the basis of identifying who belongs to the middle class. Instead, Chen adheres to the occupation criteria as a more reliable basis of middle class identification in China that has gone through the transition from a planned to a market economy. Utilising the ten social strata categories put forward by the researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Chen groups these ten social strata into three classes: upper class (administrative personnel of state and social affairs, and private entrepreneurs), middle class (managerial personnel, professionals, and office workers) and lower class (blue-collar industrial and service sector workers, the small-scale self-employed, the unemployed, the underemployed, retirees and college students). Chen’s survey results indicate that each class group consisted of 2.5%, 24.4% and 73.0% respectively (see pages 41-43).


Image Credit: Grabbing dinner in Beijing. Credit: Trey Ratcliff CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Chen makes three sets of key findings. First, China’s new middle class, having emerged during the reform era, advocates individual rights such as the right to work, right to education, right to live anywhere, unconstrained access to public information, religious liberty and freedom of conscience, and so on (see Chapter 3). However, they are also found to be distancing away from political mobilisation such as demonstrations and establishment of organisations outside the government. What is interesting is the fact that the support for political mobilisation was significantly higher among lower class respondents than the middle class. Compared to the lower class, the middle class also showed significantly less support for participatory norms (e.g. participation in government’s decision making processes and ordinary people’s role in promoting political reform) and for multiparty competitive election of government leaders. The lower degree of democratic support among the middle class respondents was also found out to be related to the higher degree of support for the Chinese Communist Party State and for the specific policies implemented by the Party State.

Second, Chen further explores the possible reasons behind the lack of support for democracy among the middle class, and finds that the lower degree of support for democracy among the middle class is not only related to the support for the Party State but also to their employment status and subjective well-being (see Chapter 4). In particular, those who are employed in the state sector are more likely to show less support for democracy than those employed in the non-state sector. Those who are satisfied with their material conditions of living are also more likely to show less support for democracy.

Finally, regarding the political behaviour of the middle class, Chen finds that while the middle class actively participates in elections sanctioned by the government, those with a lower degree of support for democracy tend to give more importance to participation in elections than more informal forms of political actions such as petitioning and directly contacting party or government officials. This may be understandable, given the group’s affinity with the Party State. Those with a higher degree of support for democracy, although a minority in the middle class group, turn out to be more engaged with the latter form of political actions. Such informal forms of political actions are more observable among those employed in the non-state sector than those in the state sector (see Chapter 5).

The political implications of Chen’s findings are far reaching. As argued in the concluding Chapter 6, it seems that China’s middle class is unlikely to act as a social agent of political changes to promote democratisation, and they are more likely to take the side of the Party State as long as it safeguards and nurtures the material well-being of the new middle class. Such conclusions also shed light on why the Chinese government is keen to expand the middle class in the coming years. The government has a high stake in promoting the expansion of the middle class not only to sustain the country’s economic development through the growth of consumption expenditure but also to ensure the state legitimacy and socio-political stability, as the middle class has become the expanding basis of the Party state’s support basis.

While the book provides a very important insight into the relationship between the expansion of the middle class and democratisation in China, it also faces a couple of shortfalls that could have been further addressed by the author. First of all, there is a clear lack of attention to non-middle class populace, especially the role of the lower (working) class in promoting democratisation. The book itself is focused on the middle class, but the findings clearly indicate that the lower class is significantly more progressive than the middle class. Therefore, as for the questions about who’s going to be the agent of social change, it seems quite clear that the lower class has greater potential to bring democratic changes to China’s political system. The author could have explored more about the rising importance of the lower class, as testified by his own findings, and discussed what the implication of cross-class alliance will be (my own research discusses this potentiality of cross-class alliance).

Moreover, the arguments in this book are largely based on the statistical analysis of the author’s survey data. Although the use of representative sample survey is commendable, the reader may also wonder about the role of the author’s extensive qualitative data. As shown by a lengthy list of interviewees attached as appendix to the book, 223 interviews in total were conducted in three cities, and each interview was said to have lasted two hours on average. It can be assumed that the vast amount of qualitative data would have the potential to shed more light on our contextual understanding of how China’s middle class come to make particular decisions about their behaviour and attitude towards democratic values, institutions and political reform. To be fair, the book does introduce several quotes from the interviewees, but only seven interviewees were mentioned in the entire book.

Nevertheless, the above shortfalls do not undermine the key strengths of Chen’s book on the relationship between China’s middle class and democracy. It is indeed a valuable addition to our understanding of the future of Chinese society and politics, and especially of the country’s future prospect of political reform that is perceived not to have progressed as much as the economic reform. It is strongly recommended to observers of China who may wish to find out more about the meaning of middle class expansion in contemporary China and what this may mean for China’s socio-political stability and state legitimacy.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books. 


Reviewed by Damion Jeong (LN814, teacher Dr Lijing Shi)

经济发展和民主化的关系是复杂的。一些人会倾向于两者是正比的关系,争辩经济繁荣可能促进民主化。然而,另外一些人可能会对这种关系有更微妙的看法 — 对社会政治关系特定轨迹对民主化进程的作用持谨慎态。不断壮大的中产阶级队伍被视为影响民主进程、重要却充满争议的因素。一方面,中产阶级可能向政权施压从而促进民主化,因为他们对个人权利的清醒认识与专制政权的做法相悖。另一方面,只要中产阶级现有的物质利益不受侵害,可以继续得益于威权国家主导的经济发展,他们就不会抵抗政权。处于“后产业时代”的亚洲国家(如韩国、台湾、新加坡等)之经验可用于验证这想法。

在当代中国,中产阶级的崛起受到中央政府的欢迎和积极推动,因其旨在推动消费支出的增加成为国家经济发展的下一个驱动力。中国政府主要受益于以出口为导向的工业发展,和对(包括住房和基础设施在内的)固定资产的大量投资。它将进一步扩大国内市场,利用中产阶级快速增长的购买力进一步推动中国的经济增长, 使国民经济免受外部冲击。虽然对中国中产阶级的认定及其规模的估计仍有不同的解释,但在可预见的未来,中国的中产阶级人数肯定会增加。在此情况下,中国民主的未来怎么样?而且,中国中产阶级会要求政治改革吗?中产阶级以后可能成为社会变化的主要因素吗?本书的作者陈捷(音) 提出了这些问题,而他的结论是对中产阶级在中国民主化和社会变化中所发挥的作用持悲观的态度。


Image Credit: Grabbing dinner in Beijing. Credit: Trey Ratcliff CC BY-NC-SA 2.0



最后,关于中产阶级的政治行为,陈捷发现中产阶级积极参与国家认可的选举; 但对不怎么支持民主的群众更倾向于参与选举, 而不是采取非正式的政治行为(如请愿或直接联系共产党或者官员)。考虑到中产阶级与“党国制度”的,这些结果是可以理解的。尽管在中产阶级是少数,更支持民主的群众,也更积极参与非正式的政治行为。体制内工作人员也体制外的更频繁地进行这些非正式的政治活动(第五章)。

陈捷的调查结果影响深远。在第六章的结论看来中国的中产阶级不大可能成为促进民主化和政治变化的社会个体;且只要中共保障并培育新中产阶级的物资福祉,他们会继续支持党国制度。这样的结果也阐明中国政府为何热衷于在壮大未来的中产阶级。扩大中产阶级对中国政府的意义巨大, 不仅仅是为了促进消费支出,也是保证其合法性以及社会政治稳定。因为中产阶级已经成为了支持党国制度且不断延伸的基础。



不过,上述的缺点并不消弱这本书的主要优点。这本书有益于理解中国社会与政治,尤其是对落后于经济改革的政治改革走向。如果你是一个中国的观察者,想探明中产阶级的壮大对当代中国意味着什么,对中国的社会政治问题和国家合法性意味着什么, 我向你强烈推荐这本书。



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About the author

Dr Hyun Bang Shin

Hyun Bang Shin is Associate Professor of Geography and Urban Studies in the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics. His research includes the critical analysis of the political economic dynamics of urban development, with particular attention to Asian cities. The main themes of his recent writings include state entrepreneurialism, politics of gentrification, post-displacement housing, the right to the city, cities of spectacle and event-led development. He is currently working on a number of publication projects including a co-authored monograph (Polity Press) and a co-edited volume (Policy Press) on critical discussions of gentrification in the global South. His book on Making China Urban is also expected to be published in 2015 from Routledge. His website is Hyun is also running a course entitled Urban Asia and China as part of LSE-Peking University Summer School. 

Posted In: Asia | Contributions from LSE Staff and Students | Economics | Mandarin | Politics | Reviews in Translation

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