Mainland faces the affluence challenge

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2006, 12:00am

Guangzhou residents are an unhappy lot. They are complaining not because they live an impoverished existence, but because they are worried about surging property prices, widening income gaps, lack of consumer protection and corruption in government.

Their high level of dissatisfaction should come as no surprise to those familiar with what sociologists call the phenomenon of rising expectations - that the better off people become, the more unhappy they become, as they have higher expectations.

The findings of successive surveys of Guangzhou's social sentiments are telling. The people of Guangdong's provincial capital are among the most affluent in the nation. Their uppermost concerns are not about putting food on the table or having a roof over their heads - basic needs that are still beyond the reach of tens of millions of impoverished rural residents. Rather, they are concerned that the rich-poor divide is getting bigger, the costs of owning a car have gone up, the courts are not impartial, government departments are corrupt, consumers have little protection against shoddy products, and children are not getting a good education. Similar surveys have shown that these are issues that also bother the majority of city dwellers on the eastern seaboard. They are quality and governance issues that can no longer be solved by rising levels of income, which the mainland government has managed to deliver for almost three decades. They can only be addressed by allowing the people to play a bigger role in governance.

There are, as yet, no signs of the growing discontent of the mainland's more affluent groups reaching boiling point. Still, if history is any guide, it is important that the authorities take timely action to address their grievances before it is too late.

Looking back, the phenomenon of rising expectations is one that has regularly manifested itself in many societies as they became more affluent. In this part of the world, the phenomenon emerged in South Korea in the 1980s. A generation of young people who grew up in relative affluence and with only dim memories of the Korean war began to question the legitimacy of a dictatorial military government. The soldiers had ruled with an iron fist and delivered continuous economic growth. But their governing machinery, riddled with cronyism and corruption, was unable to satisfy the people's growing desire to be masters of their own destiny.

At about the same time, the Kuomintang's one-party rule in Taiwan also came under challenge by a people who had become economically better off, but felt increasingly alienated by the party's high-handed ways. In both places, public grievances over quality of life, corruption and governance eventually boiled over to lead to cataclysmic changes to the political landscapes. Analysts have long pointed out that despite growing prosperity, the mainland has become a social powder keg that could explode any time.

The underlying threat is one that the Communist Party takes seriously. The leadership has often spoken of the need to pursue policies which put people first. The central government has also declared a shift away from the pursuit of economic growth at all costs. Sustainable development is now said to be the priority. The shift is important, but it is currently little more than a phrase used by officials. It remains to be seen whether new policies will bring sustainability.

The issue the leadership has continued to dodge is political reforms which would allow the people to curb the arbitrary powers of officials and purge corruption within the party's ranks. And that is worrying. History has shown that a social revolution sparked by rising expectations for a better life could be a powerful force. It is no less ferocious than that unleashed by a poor people driven by the far more basic desires for adequate food and shelter. Managing the longings for a bigger say in government by an increasingly affluent population will be the biggest challenge facing the mainland authorities for a long time to come.