November 11th was Singles Day—in Evan Osnos’ words, the “Chinese answer to Black Friday … an orgy of consumption on a level the world has rarely seen”. At The New Yorker, Osnos contrasts this festival of middle class prosperity with the recent detention of Beijing-based Twitter user Zhai Xiaobing (@stariver) for a satirical post about the 18th Party Congress.
In this contradiction—between Singles Day and illegal tweets, between needing the middle class to sustain the Party’s rule, and punishing the middle class for passing jokes around—lies the Communist Party’s essential problem. For years, the Party, and many observers abroad, believed that the middle class would be the Party’s greatest ally, that it had gained so much during the boom years that it would never risk the trappings of prosperity for fuzzy notions of political freedom. It was an idea that reached all the way back to the ancient sage Mencius, who declared that “Those who have property are also inclined to preserve social stability.” In modern China, that turned into the belief that the middle class would become the xiaofei qianwei, zhengzhi houwei: “the consumer avant-garde and political rear guard.”
[…] The arrest of Zhai Xiaobing, which has inspired a petition calling for his release, stirred a particular kind of dread among China’s self-made liberals because it reached into the privileged domain beyond the Great Firewall, the electronic dinner table where members of China’s new knowledge class were supposed to be able to joke freely, as long as they kept shopping. Day by day, it seems, the Party is confronting the fact that prosperity alone—the politics of goods—is no match for the politics of information.
Yasheng Huang questioned the nature of the link between stability and prosperity in a recent essay at Foreign Policy, featured on CDT earlier this week. “Some analysts believe that the Chinese people tolerate corruption in exchange for fast growth,” he wrote. “This is a bit like saying that New Yorkers tolerated Hurricane Sandy. Fast growth maintains a façade of stability not because it has secured tacit complicity from the Chinese people, but because it has funded the instruments of repression.”
The petition for @stariver can be found here.