For most of the last 30 years China’s leaders have been kept awake at night worrying about their country’s poverty. But as the country approaches its once-in-a decade leadership transition this fall, it is China’s affluence, rather than its poverty, that is causing sleepless nights.
Deng Xiaoping declared in 1979 that the goal of China’s modernization was the creation of a “Xiaokang (moderately well-off) society,” where citizens would be comfortable enough to lift their eyes above the daily struggles of subsistence. For more than a decade, Chinese people have been living a version of this once-utopian concept.
On a recent trip to the prosperous Guangdong province on the Pearl River Delta I was struck by the sophistication and wealth of China’s urban experience – but also by the fragility of the social compact on which it is founded. The country’s economic growth “slowed” to 7.6 percent in the second quarter (the weakest quarter since 2009, when 20 million Chinese lost their jobs as a result of the global financial crisis). Only last week, Premier Wen Jiabao warned of tough economic times ahead.
In Guangdong – where migrant laborers repeatedly riot, and where a new middle class fights hard to protect its advantages in the face of an economic slowdown – the regime is particularly challenged. After the experience of Tiananmen Square in 1989, China’s leaders are painfully aware that social strife and revolution are more likely to come about as a result of the thwarted ambitions of the aspirational than because of the complaints of the very poor.
Now that China is flush with wealth, some of its intellectuals are turning to a surprising source to understand its problems. J.K. Galbraith’s book The Affluent Society was a critique of the obsessive focus on GDP growth and production in the United States in 1958. He made waves by arguing that America’s obsession with the quantity of goods produced would have to give way to the larger question of the quality of life that it provided. In the introduction he famously argued that while poor men have a clear sense of their problems and the solutions, the rich man has “a well-observed tendency to put [wealth] to the wrong purposes or otherwise to make himself foolish”. As with individuals, claimed Galbraith, so with nations.