This is an article from the spring 2015 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

As China’s middle class grows, its citizens are making new demands on the government for safety, equality, and social mobility. But in a country as big as China, the issues are so immense that many solutions wind up creating new problems. Join LSA for a tour of the challenges facing China’s present—and shaping its future.

Flipping through a stack of popular magazines in China today feels a lot like looking through a similar stack in the United States: The faces looking back are symmetrical, attractive, and have probably been photoshopped. There are the usual movie stars and fashion models staring out, their sculpted hair giving an air of glamour and extravagance. It’s hard to believe those same magazines once featured a group of peasant farmers called the Iron Girls.

That nickname originated in 1963 when the group, then a brigade of teenage girls in the remote village of Dazhai, banded together to rebuild their village after a devastating flood.

The brigade leader said the girls were made of iron, and they became known as the “Iron Girls.”

The Iron Girls were celebrated as national symbols of personal grit, women’s power, and proletariat perseverance. National political figures praised the Iron Girls’ fortitude and self-sacrifice. During the Cultural Revolution, a period of turbulence that lasted from 1966 to 1976, the Iron Girls were held up as models for girls and young women around the country. They appeared on a range of propaganda items including posters and postcards, and even made the cover of the popular magazine The People’s Pictorial.

When Deng Xiaoping, who led China after Mao Zedong’s death, liberalized the Chinese economy in 1978, it opened the country to other changes, including a reversal of attitudes toward ideas Mao had championed. Under Deng Xiaoping, China abandoned the notion of absolute equality between classes and genders, and the Iron Girls became objects of mockery. Comedians joked that you had better not marry an Iron Girl or she’ll beat you up if you argue with her. The girls traveled from stardom to scorn in the span of just 15 years.

Chinese government propaganda posters celebrated, among other things, Chinese agriculture (left) and industry (right). The industry poster was created in 1954. The agriculture poster, created in 1961, includes text that says, “The fragrance of rice floats a thousand miles.” Photos courtesy of

The history of China in the 20th century includes many such abrupt changes and dramatic about-faces. The economic liberalization of 1978—which began China’s transition from a state-run to a market economy and opened the country’s doors for business—has led China to seismic lifestyle shifts, including a staggering rise in per capita income from $200 in 1978 to $6,000 in 2014. But economic development has come alongside a number of destabilizing forces, including massive waves of urbanization and increasing levels of financial inequality.

This instability is widespread touching almost every Chinese citizen. The rules governing things that most people might see as normal life goals—searching for a spouse, saving up for a house, planning a career—are changing at the same time people are doing them, says Mary Gallagher, director of the Kenneth G. Lieberthal and Richard H. Rogel Center for Chinese Studies and associate professor of political science.

“The pace of change that’s happening is so much faster in China,” she says. “It is very discombobulating.”

And nowhere was the potential for massive change more visible in 2014 than on the streets of Hong Kong.

Democracy Now?

In fall 2014, images of protests from Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution” flooded international airwaves, creating a set of protest images most Americans placed alongside those from the deadly demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. To Western audiences, these images showed people longing to live in a democracy. And for many people living in China and under other repressive governments around the world, that’s true.

Pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Hong Kong use umbrellas to protect themselves from police pepper spray on September 28, 2014. The so-called “Umbrella Revolution” lasted from September 26 to December 14, almost 80 days. Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images

But Gallagher says that although widespread dissatisfaction with the government exists, that doesn’t mean that everyone in China wants democracy.

“We tend to assume that because China is authoritarian, because people don’t have the right to vote, or the right to choose their leaders, that they all must want democratic change,” says Gallagher. “But it’s not clear that’s the case.

“Thirty percent of China’s population live in cities legally,” she continues. “Many of them are either wealthy or on their way to becoming middle class. They look around and see the 70 percent of people who are not like them. They see democracy as a destabilizing threat.”

In addition to the 30 percent of the Chinese population living legally in Chinese cities, another 20 percent live there illegally or on temporary permits. Their status is problematic because of a strict Chinese household registration system called hukou.

Since its inception, hukou has created a rigid, apartheid-like system of inequity that privileges urban residents and relegates rural residents to a distant second class. Because in addition to deciding your legal residence, your hukou also determines what social benefits, such as health care or pension payments, you’ll receive. It determines your kids’ education. In desirable cities, such as Beijing, it also determines whether you can buy a house or a car.

The hukou is hereditary: If your parents held a rural hukou, then you also hold one—even if you were born in a city and have never been to your home village.

Haves and Have-Nots

The hukou system was introduced in 1958, the same year as the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous industrialization plan in which millions of mostly rural residents starved to death. The hukou system trapped them in a countryside that could not produce enough food to feed them, and it prevented them from moving to one of China’s comparatively resource-rich cities.

But as China’s urban manufacturing sector grew rapidly after the 1978 economic reforms, its factories needed cheap labor—lots and lots of cheap labor—to keep growing.

As the Chinese economy expanded, the hukou system has been reformed multiple times to accommodate the voracious labor needs of urban factories. These reforms created a class of temporarily urbanized rural workers, and in 2013 a major series of economic reforms laid out a plan to make hundreds of millions of temporarily urbanized workers into legal city residents within 20 years in order to make China’s economy more sustainable and efficient.

But increasing urban populations by that much could be dangerous, Gallagher says, inviting an enormous population into cities that lack the infrastructure to support them.

In a country with over a billion people, the resources in question here run the gamut from food, clean water, and clean air to sanitation, employment, law enforcement, and access to education.

The situation isn’t wholly dissimilar to issues in the United States surrounding illegal immigration, Gallagher says, creating similar conflicts about stolen jobs and the appropriate use of government support systems.

“Illegal immigration in the United States creates this huge debate about how inclusive we should be,” Gallagher explains. “What rights should people have? How long should someone have to wait to become a citizen, and when do they get to enjoy the benefits of that citizenship?”

It was China’s 1978 economic reforms which opened the floodgates for economic development and urbanization. But while there were enough legitimate economic opportunities to create a Chinese middle class from almost nothing, economic liberalization also led to a dramatic increase in less legitimate opportunism in the form of government corruption. which opened the floodgates for economic development and urbanization. But while there were enough legitimate economic opportunities to create a Chinese middle class from almost nothing, economic liberalization also led to a dramatic increase in less legitimate opportunism in the form of government corruption.


Strikes are technically illegal in China—mentioned only rarely on state-sponsored newscasts—but they seem to be on the rise. With 1,171 strikes recorded between 2011 and 2013, and 569 strikes during the last quarter of that year, China has experienced a quadrupling of its monthly strike totals, especially on the coast, far from China's capital Beijing. Infographic by David Speranza

Squeaky Wheels

China has experienced meteoric economic growth throughout the past three and a half decades—modernizing 10 times as fast as Britain did during the first Industrial Revolution and with 100 times as many people. Most economists would tell you that such high growth precludes equally high levels of corruption, but, oddly, China has both corruption and growth.

“We are often puzzled as to why China has a high-growth economy but is, at the same time, a really corrupt country,” says Yuen Yuen Ang, an assistant professor of political science whose research focuses on the connections between corruption and growth. “We think that these things are not compatible, but we need to think about the different types of corruption.”

In China, someone who is pulled over by a policeman might be asked for a bribe. That’s petty corruption, Ang says, something that Americans would be shocked to see in their own country. But a high-stakes situation in which powerful politicians bestow some significant benefit on a supporter—say, a lower tax rate or a good deal on some prime real estate—might seem more familiar.

“As an economy advances, corruption changes forms,” Ang says. “It’s typically legalized, looks very sophisticated, and no longer touches the lives of regular people.

“Real estate developers might make an exchange with party secretaries in China to get the land they want, for example. That does not impede economic growth. That is economic growth,” Ang says. “But it is bad economic growth because it is an unfair distribution of resources and, arguably, it can create distortions like real estate bubbles in the long run. But in the short run, it’s growth.”

I Paid a Bribe

Recent efforts to curtail corruption at both the local and national levels have been somewhat successful, Ang says, but some attempts to crowdsource information on petty corruption failed to gain traction in China.

The website I Paid a Bribe collects information reported by individual citizens on government corruption. If someone demands extra money to process your passport request or register your child’s birth certificate, then you could go online and anonymously report the details of the bribe: where and who you paid, and how much. Theoretically, that person could then be prosecuted by the government.

In America, Ang says, people are more heavily connected to their local communities than in China. The connection encourages them to operate with what French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called “ enlightened self-interest.”

“So to advance my own self-interest, I need to learn how to work within a community and contribute to my community,” Ang explains. “And that remains a very vibrant part of American society today. People accept a general concept of their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

“When you look at China from a Western perspective, you assume that if the state took away its controls, then civil society would automatically pop up to replace it,” Ang continues. “But civil society isn’t something that just appears. It’s cultivated. You have to learn it.”

Beyond Contradictions

China is full of contradictions. It is a massive polluter and a huge investor in green energy. It is both a communist country and a country with massive, destabilizing inequalities between segments of its population. It is both a global leader and a developing nation with a comparatively low per capita income.

The style of Chinese government propaganda has changed over time, and so have the characters and content it presents. Vigorous workers were gradually replaced by willowy young women, and work was replaced by leisure. Photos by

China likewise resists one-to-one comparisons with other developing countries. Its size and economic success make it different than countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc, which also made transitions from planned to market economies. Its culture and government structure are so different from India’s—which, like China, governs a massive population within the borders of a single nation-state—that it is unclear what economic lessons the two can learn from each other. As a bundle of contradictory forces and states, China seems difficult to define except on its own terms.

But one analogy that might shed light on the future of China and the challenges of China’s present—one way of understanding the relationship between China’s government and its citizens—is that of a parent and child.

“When the Chinese economic reforms started [in 1978], the people were like a baby,” Ang says. “Raising an infant is exhausting, but in some ways, it’s simple. You don’t have to spend much time worrying about what a baby wants on a psychological level. The government really just needed to meet the people’s basic needs, making sure people had food, jobs, and security.

“Now, the people of China are growing up. They’re becoming like teenagers. There is this growing middle class which has increasing and increasingly complicated demands. Now that many Chinese have risen out of absolute poverty, they expect things like environmental protection and government accountability.

“The people and the government have to learn to have a good relationship with each other,” Ang suggests. “The teenager has to learn to be a good teenager, a reasonable teenager, and the parent has to adapt and learn how to respond to the teenager’s demands. I can’t say whether they will be successful at that or not, but I can say that the last 30 years have shown China as a country to be very resilient, and absolutely determined to solve whatever problems it has at hand.”