A while back I heard a princeling turned Shenzhen nouveau riche (and they do surface every now and again, entrepreneurs in their late 50s and 60s, who came to the SEZ to live well below the national political radar, but nevertheless take advantage of their status to reap economic benefits in the city that launched Reform) half-mockingly challenge a lunch table of intellectuals, saying:
China has three classes — high ranking officials (高干), national intellectuals (高知), and peasants (农民). Officials need help governing and are good to those who help them, but that’s not the important issue. The real question is: do you really want to share power with peasants?
That smug question provoked self-conscious chortles because most at the table were low-level national intellectuals, not peasants, no, but certainly ecclesiastes, who Gramsci defined as the category of intellectuals “who for a long time…held a monopoly of a number of important services: religious ideology, that is the philosophy and science of the age, together with schools, education, morality, justice, charity, good works, etc. The category of ecclesiastes can be considered the category of intellectuals organically bound to the landed aristocracy.”
The a-ha moment in “three class theory” is the emphasis on political, rather than economic power. Take a look at Chinese society and what becomes obvious is that high-ranking officials are, by and large, China’s property-owning class and national intellectuals are, by and large, members of the bourgeoisie. Within each of these classes, of course, exist various opportunities to confirm and strengthen social status, as well as opportunities to transfer and exchange socially valued goods, including money, but also including housing, medical care, and other social benefits. In contrast, peasants are those organically tied to the land, with all that the status has historically entailed: providing quota grain under Maoist collectivism to fund socialist urbanization, and presently being excluded from China’s urban boom except as members of the proletariat. The point, of course, is that in Chinese society economic opportunity is a function of political and social status, rather than the reverse.
The status of peasants and their ties to land are at the center of Shenzhen’s development.On the one hand, as rural areas urbanize, the question of land comes to the fore and in it we see how officials and intellectuals cooperate to expropriate land and justify its expropriation. In this scenario, the class struggle is over the terms of proletarianization and the creation of what are called “peasant workers (农民工)”. On the other hand, to the extent that villages retain control of their land and pursue capitalist projects, we see the stability of the three class system as local systems reproduce this hierarchy, producing “local emperors (土皇帝)”. In this parallel scenario, the struggle is over the extent to which local emperors and local intellectuals might launch themselves into national politics. Obviously, although both historical trajectories transform individual lives, it is also clear that these changes are not bringing about a more just society, but rather using previous injustices to make and legitimate power grabs and the concomitant distribution of the spoils.
As China enters its fourth decade of reform, Gramsci’s call for intellectuals to theorize and provide alternatives to the present situation still haunts us. The fact that US and Chinese leaders continue to cosy up to one another and that US and Chinese intellectuals find so much in common makes salient the compatibility of US neoliberal ideologies and Chinese ideologies of socialist exceptionalism. However, this ideological compatibility has blinded many of us to a simple truth; the quality of life for Chinese nongmin remains the standard for evaluating the scale, possibility, and social forms of Reform and Opening, not the cross-cultural comfort level of high-ranking officials and national intellectuals, whatever their passport status may be.