Face-to-face with China’s new elite

By Teresa Wright

I recently returned from a 10-day stay in Shanghai and Beijing. I’d traveled to China many times, but I hadn’t been back to Shanghai and Beijing since 1990, my first visit to China.

My trip brought me face-to-face with China’s emerging elite as well as the consumerism and environmental headaches that have come with explosive growth.

Things in China are changing — fast. There was construction everywhere, and people were working all the time. City life, at least, is much easier and more comfortable: the roads are good; the subway systems are fast, efficient, and clean; vehicles generally obey traffic signals; spitting in public (pervasive on all of my previous visits) is fairly rare; few people are smoking cigarettes in public; and clean toilets (a rarity in the past) are easy to find.

Still, it is a place of stark contrasts. The gap between the rich and the poor is particularly glaring. Virtually all of the construction workers are from the countryside, living an existence almost entirely separate from the relatively wealthy city dwellers.

I passed by some horrible metal shacks with rickety, miserable bunks–the homes of the construction workers toiling in the rubble across the street. Only a few blocks away were futuristic high-rises and incredibly fancy stores selling jewelry and clothing that cost as much as anything you’d find in the U.S.

High-end restaurants with beautiful interiors abound.

While having lunch in an inexpensive and fairly empty restaurant about an hour outside of Shanghai, I talked to two of the waitresses for a long time. Like most service workers
at small establishments, they were not from the area, but rather had migrated there in search of work.

One was 18, and knew no one when she arrived. Her hometown is more than 20 hours away by train. The other was 29, and about to return home (about 4 hours away) to get engaged (an event to which she was not looking forward). Neither knew any English, or had e-mail. They work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. When I asked them about the ancient garden that is the town’s main tourist site (and is located 200 yards from their restaurant), they told me they had never been. They were too busy working all the time; and in any event the garden entrance fee was about 3 US dollars. That’s a lot when the average income in China is about 2,000 US dollars a year.

Earning $US 12,000/year places you within the wealthiest 15 percent of the population–a group that mostly includes private business owners and college-educated professionals.

I gave a talk at Beijing University (Beida)—the most elite university in China. MY talk put me into contact with this socioeconomic stratum. I was invited to speak there by one of my classmates at Berkeley, a mainland Chinese man named Pan Wei who returned to China after receiving his PhD., and has since become the head of Beida’s School of International Studies.

I had no idea of what to expect. I arrived to find huge 6-foot tall sign announcing my talk–which was entitled “Sources of Social Support for China’s Current Political Order.” I was nervous about the whole enterprise, as my talk (and the book that I’m writing) try to explain why Chinese citizens support (or at least tolerate) Chinese Communist Party rule.

I’ve given the talk in the US before, but this was going to be different–a foreigner attempting to tell China’s elites why they hold the political attitudes that they do!

The room was packed with about 60 students and faculty. I said a few words in Chinese, and then gave the talk in English. The moment I was done, hands shot up.

For the next hour, I was grilled with extremely polite, intelligent, and knowledgeable and extremely incisive—questions and comments (in very good English). The students and faculty in the audience were unbelievably impressive, and didn’t let me get away with a thing–they scrutinized practically every statement I had made and every word that I had used.

By the time it was all over I was exhausted, and my head was spinning. My overall thought was that if these people are to be China’s next generation of leaders, then China’s future is very bright.

A few days later, I had the opportunity to have dinner with another group of highly educated and prosperous locals—one of whom is an investment banker who works with an old high school friend of mine. I was similarly impressed.

The contrast between China’s Maoist past and capitalist present also is striking. Next to Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium is an Outback Steakhouse. Not far from Shanghai’s People’s Park and the site of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding are CapitaLand and the Elite Club. As for American influences, along with the ubiquitous McDonald’s and Starbucks, Hooters has arrived.

In all, China is a very hopeful place, but the positive changes are coupled with much hardship, environmental degradation, and an overpowering materialism.

When I traveled to Beijing and Shanghai in 1990, I did not see a single person in obvious economic need. Back then, there were street vendors selling mostly fruit and services (such as shoe or bike repair), but now it seems that everyone is selling everything, and one is constantly harangued to buy things–not just foreigners but also wealthier-looking locals.

As for the environment, it was in bad shape in 1990, and has only gotten worse. My eyes stung throughout my stay; I really couldn’t imagine living there long-term.


Teresa Wright is a professor of Political Science at California State University, Long Beach and a Visiting Scholar at the East-West Center.

For further analysis, see Teresa Wright, “Disincentives for Democratic Change in China,” Asia Pacific Issues 82 (Feb. 2007); and “State-Society Relations in Reform-Era China: A Unique Case of Post-Socialist State-led Late Development?” Comparative Politics 40(3) (April 2008): 353-374.

Watch here for more of Dr. Wright’s observations on her most recent China trip, coming soon.

2 thoughts on “Face-to-face with China’s new elite

  1. ”As for the environment, it was in bad shape in 1990, and has only gotten worse. My eyes stung throughout my stay; I really couldn’t imagine living there long-term.”

    May I ask what exact environmental issue you are referring to? At least the streets in Beijing and Shanghai are much cleaner than those in LA.



  2. Indeed, Beijing is much cleaner now

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