Ben L. Read, from the Department of Political Science at the University of Iowa, has been researching grassroots organizing with a particular focus since 1999 on homeowners movements in China. In a Q&A over email with The China Beat, Read puts the Shanghai protests in context:
I think we should guard against reading too much into this event. Howard W. French, in his New York Times story makes a rather bold claim that the protests are “the strongest sign yet of rising resentment among China’s fast-growing middle class over a lack of say in decision making.” Social classes rarely act in unified ways politically, and it’s questionable at best whether the middle class in China is generally characterized by resentment.
Still, I agree that we’re looking at an important form of political action that deserves our attention. It was undertaken by people who now have resources (money, education, communication tools like cell phones, the internet and video cameras) that were missing or less prevalent in earlier parts of PRC history. When they buy expensive homes in these new housing developments it gives them a strong interest in protecting that investment — British Thatcherites and U.S. “ownership society” advocates would nod their heads at this.
But I think homeowners are also motivated by a sense that when they acquire their piece of what we might call the “Chinese dream,” there’s an implicit social contract going with it. The system in China now encourages people to devote their energy to getting ahead in the new economy, and once they “make it” by acquiring a nice, modern home, once of the ultimate markers of success, they feel entitled to certain things: fair treatment in matters concerning their home, veto power over unreasonable arrangements, some control over the neighborhood environment, peace and quiet, privacy, and freedom from certain kinds of impositions. This sense of being entitled to things beyond what’s specified on the property deed is a big part of what underlies the homeowner movement more generally.