The Wheat Harvest of 1973

A word of warning first: this post is speculative in nature as I have no proof, nor do I think that what I say is provable, verifiable or falsifiable.  So there is no point in trying to prove or disprove this -- you should just address the challenge in the final paragraph.

The starting point is an article that summarizes ethnographic interviews with three middle-class households in Beijing today.  Actually, these three apparently middle-class Beijing families do not regard themselves as middle-class.  Once they get beyond worrying about getting the basic necessities, they look at leisure time as the definitive criterion for middle-class, and that is beyond them at this time.

(Wen Wei Po)  By Liu Ningzhe (劉凝哲).  February 16, 2005.


According to a study done by some Americans, the middle-class in Bejing is defined as having 780,000 RMB or more in annual household income.  This was challenged by some mainland Chinese scholars who believe that the middle-class standard can be reached with an income between 80,000 to 400,000 RMB.

Based upon this standard, our reporter interviewed three Beijing families.  During the process, our reporter discovered that these families which were marked as 'middle-class' do not identify themselves with this defintion.  Their most common notion is that "we are too busy working that we cannot experience the leisurely lifestyle of the middle-class."

Xiao Yan (蕭妍) is a native Beijing girl working at an advertising company.  She has been working for five years, and she makes about 200,000 RMB now.  She owns a 120 square meter apartment and a Volkswagen Golf car.  Xiao Yan received her education at a famous university, and she has artisitic qualities.  Her parents are wealthy and have good social standing.

Xiao Yan's favorite pet is a pure-bred cat, which she purchased for 16,000 RMB.  "Each month, I have to spend a few hundred dollars on essential care for the cat," she said.  Although her income and residence have reached the middle-class standards, she denied it vehemently: "I am not middle-class."  Due to the pressure and special nature of her work, she does not experience the stability of the middle-class.  She thinks that even though the job pays well, she does not have a high social position and she does not have a social identity.

She also said that the most important thing about the middle-class is stability.  But her work is definitely unstable, and "instability means lack of income."  She said, "Although my income and lifestyle have reached the middle-class standard, my subjective feeling and social position do not belong to this class."  Xiao Yan told the reporter: "I would rather people say that I belong to the generation of newly rich."

Zhang Hongkai (張弘凱) just got married last year, and they both work at an architectural design company.  Their annual income is about 250,000 RMB, they own an apartment in Beijing and they have a car.  When our reporter brought up the subject of middle-class, the couple shook their heads quickly: "We can't be counted as such.  We are barely above being hungry and cold."  This did not seem reasonable, but the couple explained that even though they seem to make a lot of money, they work very hard and half of their salary goes to the mortgage, automobile installment payments and various insurance policies.

"The pressures of life are so big.  Where do we have the leisure to be middle-class?  Even David Beckham thinks that he is a proletariat.  So it would be a joke if we are middle-class?"  They think that they may appear to make a lot of money, but they work very hard and their expenditures are high, so they live a hectic life without any sense of the leisure of the middle-class.  In the eyes of the Zhang couple, a middle-class family ought to have two apartments, and two or more cars.  "An annual household income between 80,000 to 400,000 RMB is probably only the standard for being a well-off family," Zhang said.

The Wang Chao (王超) family of two earns about 400,000 RMB per year and they own several apartments and two cars.  They think that they are only a lower-middle class family.  They don't think that the middle-class is a class as such in Beijing.  At most, it is a social stratum, and they are currently located in the bottom layer of this middle-class stratum.

They enjoy going to shop in Hong Kong.  "Bascially, we go to Hong Kong twice a year to shop.  We buy all the things that we need in Hong Kong because the quality of goods is superior in Hong Kong."  They also like to travel.  They have basically visited all the scenic sights in China and the surrounding countries.  They want to travel to Europe right now, but they don't want to go with a tour group.

Concerning the pressures of life, the Wang couple said that the so-called middle-class in Beijing is under a lot of pressure.  Mr. Wang said, "In order to maintain the current good life, it is necessary to work even hrader.  The pleasure and leisure of the American middle-class in the lore is something that I can only dream about."

These people do not appear to be exceptional; you have probably met many such people before, in China and elsewhere.  After going through the article, I asked myself the hypothetical question: What are the chances of getting these people to engage in the democratic project so beloved by overseas democracy proponents?  For example, can you get these people to go out on the streets today to demand the end of one-party rule? or vindication of June 4, 1989? and the other pet democratic issues?

As I say, I have no proof but I believe that they will not engage.  This particular group of people grew up after the Cultural Revolution and at the start of the economic reforms.  They would have heard about what happened before, and they can see that their lives are a lot better than before.  They are fairly content with what they have accomplished so far, their discontent appear to be apolitical and tolerable and they are unwilling to risk everything that they have for some unknown future with a potentially huge downside.  This group of people is also the engine of the current economic growth of China.  My question was: So what does the democracy project have to say to them to get them to engage?

I am idealistic and moralistic.  I feel that one should always be able to appeal on the basis of fairness and justice.  The economic development of China over the past two decades or so had not been equitable.  Initially, it was a concerted decision to develop the major urban areas and the coastal regions as rapidly as possible, at the expense of the rural sector.  That was not necessarily a bad decision.  Completely even development is illusionary, and one ought to take advantage of the best opportunities available.  But at some point, one is morally obliged to redress those historical inequities.

But how much empathy would the urban middle-class have for the rural poor?  They might have flipped through the book by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao's The Chinese Peasants Study and felt sorry.  But that's not enough.  I want to see them actually do something about it.

Here, I am going to go back in time to pay a tribute to the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution.  Yes, I agree fully that the campaign was a sham that masked the sectarian power struggles among various cliques.  Yet, I submit that at the base level, there was some degree of genuine faith that created a popular empathy which no longer exists today.

I am going to quote a paragraph from Jan Wong's Red China Blues.  The reported event took place in the heydays of the Cultural Revolution.  At the time, Jan Wong and her friend Erica Jen were the first two North Americans studying at Beijing University.

In June 1973, Erica and I excitedly joined our classmates for the wheat harvest.  We arose at 4:30am., splashed water on our faces and stumbled over to the Big Canteen, where we bought our double rations of tasteless steamed bread and extremely salty pickles.  After lining up in military formation for a roll call, we climbed into the back of damp army trucks for the bumpy ride to the commune.  My classmates cut the wheat with small sickles.  Since I was left-handed, my job was to bundle it, making "rope" by twisting shanks of fresh-cut wheat.

Stupidly, I had forgotten my straw hat.  By eight the sun had vaporized the clouds.  Because of a storm the previous day, the ground was literally steaming.  When I finally stopped to straighten my back, the wheatfields shimmered like a sea of molten gold and the sky was so brilliant that my eyes hurt.  I thought I was going to pass out when the class leader called a break.  I checked my watch and was depressed to see it was only nine-thirty.  At noon, I collapsed on a straw mat and dreamed of ice coffee.  My hands were lacerated from the straw, my back hurt, and my throat and tongue were thick with thirst.  I couldn't eat the steamed bread and salted pickles.  Scarlet was ravenous and ate her lunch and mine.  We finally quit at five in the afternoon, after half a dozen classmates had fainted from heat exhaustion.

I submit that the class of students from the elite Beijing University back then would be much less concerned about taking care of their pets first than seeing that the Chinese peasants becoming 'well-off'.  Maybe they have lost faith in the words of their political leaders and they don't ever want to get fooled again.  But I don't think that they would wish the fate of what they had gone through for one day onto the majority of the Chinese population for their entire lives.

Still, that is history, as interesting as it may have been.  Meanwhile, what does the democracy project have to say to this current generation of the middle-class, which forms the backbone of the economic engine of China?  I have no suggestions.  But unless the democracy proponents can come up with effective messages, their project is hopeless.  

The criteria are simple: think about people like the middle class families in the Wen Wei Pao article, and see how you can persuade them to unequivocally and passionately demand the end of one-party rule, the beginning of democratic direct elections and the vindication of June 4, 1989.  All I can say is that you are not getting through to them right now.  If you say "F**k them and their black hearts!!" and go for a peasant rebellion instead, you will have made sure that they are on the other side.  Is that the best way to go?  And are you sure that you know how to connect with the peasants either?