The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Is China on the Cusp of a Middle-Class Revolt?

September 6, 2016

While Chinese leaders point to the Brexit vote and the rise of Trumpism as evidence of democracy’s shortcomings, Tomoko Ako argues that China is just as vulnerable as the West to the economic forces that are fueling political upheaval by threatening the welfare of the middle class.

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On June 24, as the world reeled from the news that British citizens had voted to withdraw from the European Union, China’s state-run news service Xinhua published comments citing the outcome of the June 23 referendum as evidence that the West’s vaunted democratic system was powerless to defend against the rising influence of nationalism and right-wing extremism.

There is no arguing with the proposition that democracy has its shortcomings. But surely another key factor behind the growing influence of nationalism and right-wing extremism in Britain is the economic inequity that has squeezed the working and middle class, fomenting political instability and undermining democracy. Viewed from this standpoint, China is scarcely immune to the forces that are challenging political leaders in Britain and elsewhere.

The Middle Strikes Back

The results of Britain’s June 23 referendum revealed a stark generational and class divide. According to the Lord Ashcroft exit poll, the percentage of those voting to remain in the EU was 73% among voters in the 18-24 age group, 62% in the 25-34 group, 57% among those aged 55-64, and 60% among voters 65 and older. By income level, 57% of those in the upper-middle and upper income brackets voted to remain, while 64% of working-class and low-income voters favored leaving. While “remainers” cited concerns about the impact of withdrawal on employment and the economy, “leavers” stressed national sovereignty, self-determination, and control over immigration as reasons for voting as they did. [1]

The rise of anti-immigrant feeling among the working class has close parallels in the United States, where Donald Trump secured the Republican Party’s nomination over the summer with blatant appeals to the same kind of sentiment. In an article in the National Journal , John Judis characterized the core of Trump’s support as “middle American radicals”: angry middle- and lower-middle-income voters who are lashing out at the government for policies that they believe favor the rich and the poor at the expense of ordinary working people. According to Judis, these are predominantly white, non-college-educated, blue-collar and low-level white-collar workers whose politics resist any neat classification as conservative or liberal. [2]

Observing such developments around the world, I was reminded of the fierce protests that middle-class parents recently staged in China over proposed changes to college and university admissions quotas.

In mid-May this year, thousands of angry parents in Jiangsu and Hubei provinces demonstrated to demand “fairness” in the university admissions system, in some cases clashing with police. Similar protests subsequently broke out in cities in Henan, Zhejiang, and Hebei provinces.

The target of the Chinese parents’ anger was a plan, announced jointly by the Ministry of Education and the National Development and Reform Commission, to adjust regional quotas for admission to China’s colleges and universities. The plan would require schools in the 12 wealthiest provinces, where institutions of higher education are concentrated, to reallocate a total of 160,000 slots to applicants from the underdeveloped central and western regions, which have far fewer colleges and universities. For institutions in Jiangsu, a prosperous region that includes the cities of Nanjing and Suzhou, this would mean allocating 38,000 slots to nonlocal students. (The local-enrollment quota for Beijing schools would stay unchanged, and that for Shanghai would be cut by a mere 5,000 slots.) [3]

China’s Unfair University Quotas

Ironically, the whole point of the reforms that triggered the protests was enhancing the equity of a system widely criticized as unfair. China has a uniform National College Entrance Examination, which determines students’ eligibility for admission to various schools solely on the basis of their scores. However, individual colleges and universities, which are heavily concentrated in the country’s urban areas (particularly Beijing), have regional admissions quotas that favor local residents. To keep to these quotas (which are determined through negotiations with the local and central government), they set different threshold scores for applicants from different provinces. This system makes it extremely difficult for rural applicants to gain admission to a prestigious university.

Exacerbating the problem is China’s hukou , or household registration system, which raises often-unsurmountable obstacles to changes in one’s legal residence. Because of this system, and massive migration from the countryside since the 1980s, an estimated 200 million city dwellers today are classified as migrant laborers. Even after many years living and working in the city, they remain registered as residents of their native villages, as do their children. This affects the children’s university admissions status. For example, students who have attended Beijing high schools but have a Sichuan hukou must return to Sichuan to sit for the university entrance examination. To gain admission to a Beijing university, they must vie with countless other rural applicants for the few slots that those schools have set aside for nonresidents, thus reducing their chances of gaining entrance to first- or second-tier institutions. Not a few have actually lost out to registered Beijing residents with lower test scores.

In 2000, a full 43% of all students enrolled in China’s 100 or so national universities (the nation’s top-ranking schools) were registered local residents. In 2008, the Ministry of Education directed the national universities to reduce that figure to less than 30%, and by 2011 it had fallen to 25%. In 2015, the government called on those schools to reserve 2% of their admissions for applicants from high schools in impoverished districts.

However, in a system in which educational opportunity is circumscribed by one’s regional origins, these piecemeal adjustments have done little to close the education gap. Between 2013 and 2015, the acceptance rate at China’s first-tier universities (the top 140 or so institutions) averaged 24.4% for registered residents of Beijing and 21.5% for residents of Shanghai. For applicants from with Sichuan or Shanxi residency, it was 5.4% and 7.1%, respectively. [4]

Meanwhile, as we have seen, the latest proposal for mitigating the system’s inequities by expanding nonresident quotas has provoked an angry backlash from middle-class parents in Jiangsu and Hubei, provinces considered rich in educational resources (ranking just below Beijing and Shanghai).

It should be noted that of the 38,000 slots to be reallocated from Jiangsu residents to applicants from other provinces, only 9,000 are places at four-year universities, which are the key to real economic and social advancement in China. The remaining 29,000 are slots at relatively low-prestige two- and three-year vocational and technical colleges. Under the circumstances, students and parents from the inland provinces are unlikely to view the reform as a major victory for educational equality. [5]

In fact, vocational and technical colleges in Jiangsu (as in other prosperous provinces) have struggled in recent years to fill their enrollment targets, and an increase in those colleges’ out-of-province quotas was welcomed by the schools and the provincial government. Nor are local students likely to suffer significantly as a result.

Jiangsu parents, however, are concerned about the 9,000 university slots, worrying that an influx of outsiders will deprive their children of a slot in the local four-year university of their choice. At bottom, these sentiments are not so different from those of the angry, white Trump supporters who believe that immigrants (backed by the government) are threatening their way of life and economic well-being. Like the United States, Britain, and other countries around the world, China is facing the formidable challenge of juggling competing class interests in the face of growing economic disparities and slowing economic growth. In China, moreover, the problem is exacerbated by the absence of a democratic decision-making process driving government policy.

To be sure, reforming admissions at the state level is a challenge, particularly given the recent trend toward decentralization of the admissions system. Jiangsu in particular is pioneering a new system that factors in a variety of required and elective subjects as well as assessments of moral character, citizenship, aptitude, and so forth, in an attempt to evaluate the whole student as an individual and alleviate the current system’s intense focus on a single high-stakes entrance examination. But such reforms seem unlikely to bear fruit until the authorities begin to treat education as a means of developing the skills and knowledge an individual needs to achieve his or her own goals, not simply as a tool of economic development. Equal educational opportunity is fundamental to such an approach.

The current system does not guarantee fair competition, and in the absence of fair competition, talented students will seek opportunities overseas, and China’s brain drain will continue.

Fragmentation in the EU and China

Commenting on the Brexit vote, Hokkaido University Professor Ken Endo writes, “The European Union lacks the legitimacy to overturn the holy trinity of nationalism, democracy, and state sovereignty. Even though the European Council is directly elected by popular vote, its democratic legitimacy is extremely tenuous, given that voter turnout has fallen as the council’s powers have grown.” The EU is not a state but a regional federation of states, Endo stresses. When a majority of the people in its member states reject the federation and express their will through the democratic process, there is no way to stem the tide. This is what happened in Britain’s referendum. [6]

Of course, China differs from the EU in many respects, most notably its form of government. Nonetheless, I believe Endo’s basic assessment could also be applied to the central government of the People’s Republic of China. Does this government have any more legitimacy in the eyes of the average Chinese citizen than the European Council does for the average British voter? Even though the international community recognizes the People’s Republic of China as a unified sovereign state, it seems to me that Endo’s characterization of the EU as a regional federation lacking the legitimacy of a democratic state also describes the situation in the People’s Republic of China.

The lack of a unified social security system in China exacerbates the economic disparities between the prosperous provinces and the less advantaged regions. Moreover, under the hukou system, which has remained largely impervious to reform, one’s residence is fixed and passed down to one’s children. [7] This means that the social services one is eligible to receive, as well as the educational opportunities on which social and economic betterment depend, are essentially determined at birth. While some people succeed in changing their hukou to a locale that offers better services and opportunities thanks to academic or career achievements, their numbers are extremely limited. These inequities are fostering a situation in which residents of Beijing or Shanghai value their local identity over their national identity, just as British citizens recently decided they valued their national identity over their identity as Europeans.

When I first undertook fieldwork in rural China in the mid-1990s, the villagers I spoke to frequently described themselves as “backward” in comparison to “a well-educated city dweller” like myself. They seemed all too aware of their educational disadvantages, yet at that time they seemed undaunted. They still bought into the notion that the New China held almost limitless opportunities for advancement for those that were willing to study hard. Now these people feel they have been deceived, and their frustration is turning into resentment toward the government.

In contrast, the urban middle class has flourished. But as the economy contracts and the government moves to adjust its social policies, members of this class are becoming keenly aware of real and imagined threats to their vested interests. It remains to be seen how an increasingly divided China responds to these socioeconomic challenges.

[1] Ashcroft, Lord, “How the United Kingdom Voted on Thursday . . . and Why,” Lord Ashcroft Polls, June 26, 2016, .

[2] John B. Judis, “The Return of the Middle American Radical: An Intellectual History of Trump Supporters,” National Journal , October 3, 2015,

[3] See .

[4] See .

[5] Li Zhanggao, “Mingan gaokao jian zhao” (The Sensitive Subject of Decreasing College Entrance Opportunities), Minzhu yu fazhi shibao (Democracy and Legal Times), June 2, 2016.

[6] Ken Endo, “Eikoku wa EU ridatsu de notauchimawaru koto ni naru” (Britain Will Writhe from the Pain of Brexit), Toyo Keizai , June 27, 2016, .

[7] See Tomoko Ako, “China’s Safety Net Shackled to Family Registers,”, November 6, 2012, .

    • Associate Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo
    • Tomoko Ako
    • Tomoko Ako

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