China Brief

Obama’s China Trip: Forging Middle Class Ties

Introduction

Last April, in a press conference capping his first one hundred days in office, President Obama remarked that the "'ship of state'" is an ocean liner, not a speedboat," and that even a small shift in direction could have farreaching consequences even a decade or two later. When the President travels to Beijing next month on his maiden China trip, it may serve the President’s purposes to come up with a modern analogy befitting the Chinese regime. While President Obama is doing his utmost to steer the lumbering U.S.S. America in a slightly new direction, the Chinese leadership is performing a delicate balancing act, seeking to harness the powerful social forces below without letting them escape their control.

Among the many forces shaping China’s course of development, none will prove more significant in the long run than the emergence of a Chinese middle class. China’s ongoing economic transition from that of a relatively poor developing nation to a middle class country like the United States could have wide-ranging implications for every domain of Chinese life, especially for the country’s economy, politics, internal social cohesion and environment. From the party’s perspective, of course, an economically aspirant population can be a double-edged sword. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems well aware that in other countries (e.g. South Korea, Indonesia) the middle classes have been known to push the envelope politically in favor of democratization. Yet the more important historical lesson for the party, ingrained over three decades of incremental reform, is that markets are here to stay and that only broadly shared prosperity can ensure social stability.