Obama’s China Trip: Forging Middle Class Ties


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.