These days no one likes elites. Look at the visceral response to the High Court judgment in the U.K. in early November stating that Brexit agreements needed to be approved by Parliament. The populist press in the U.K., with its usual remorseless blind energy, decided to brand the judges issuing this judgment “enemies of the people.” As Oscar Wilde once stated, “In the old days men had the rack [to torture people]. Now they have the press.”
The attack on the British judges happened in a largely anti-elitist context. Judges are regarded as some of the most visible and obvious members of the remote, highly trained, highly educated, and, in the view of the chief ring leaders of populist politics in the U.K., self-interested and self-preserving elites. They are, in the thinking of many, part of the cabal of vested interests that has created the inequality and discontent that infects politics in the U.K. and across the world. During the EU referendum, one of the main political leaders supporting the leave campaign, Michael Gove, gave an expression of this crisp enough to be worthy of Goebbels: “We have had quite enough of experts,” he sighed.
If a county with centuries of respect for law and stable institutions can deteriorate this way, then what are the prospects for a state like China, where institutional development is recent and its roots shallow?
In a country where the dictatorship of the proletariat and following the mass line are still notionally part of the formal Party State ideology, one might expect China to have less of a problem with elites. Under Xi, the mantra has shifted back to “serving the people” — the phrase he stressed the moment he walked out four years ago in 2012, having being anointed party secretary at the Great Hall of the People. The State Constitution, after all, says clearly enough that Chinese people these days are “masters of their own house,” and in control of their own affairs. No space for elites here, then?
In fact, of course, there has been as much anger at elites in China as anywhere else. The Party has often been the focus of this. China was in many ways ahead of the curve in its anti-elitism. Mao Zedong had a famous antagonism toward “knowledge elements,” the intellectuals. The Cultural Revolution started off half a century ago with one of its key slogans, “Better to be red than expert.” Universities were closed down, or made into rebellious group battlegrounds, and students sent off to make revolution. Most of the current members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including Xi, had their education curtailed, or interrupted, by this period.
Even under Deng Xiaoping-era “reform and opening up,” with its re-privileging of expertise and education, the strains of Chinese anti-elitism did not disappear. In fact, by the first decade of the 21st century, a whole group of populist bloggers had captured a corner of this ideological market. The most vocal of them was Wang Xiaodong, chief author of a 2009 book, Unhappy China. The book contains coruscating essays raging against Chinese elites, whom the various authors blame for allowing the country to become the manufacturing sweatshop of the world; blighting food safety; and letting China, under the civil, uncommunicative Hu Jintao, be pushed around by foreigners. Parts of the argument by Wang and his colleagues were every bit as trenchant and anti-government as anything produced by Nobel Prize winning dissident Liu Xiaobo. But while Liu is serving out his lengthy prison sentence, they have maintained their liberty. Unlike him, Wang and company railed against “elites” – they never explicitly said that these elites were Party ones.
That the Party is an elite organization, with huge institutional vested interests, is clear enough. A friend whose parents are officials in a coastal province told me recently that when the father was involved in a car crash, he was scared to admit to the person whose car he had hit that he was an official, for fear of making the other party even angrier, potentially resulting in a physically attack. Local officials and Party leaders regularly appear as the most despised and distrusted group in China. Like British judges, in the eyes of the press and people, Chinese officials figure as out of touch and self-interested, feathering their own nests.
Central leaders like Xi Jinping have addressed this anti-elitism by having the Party scourge itself in public through the anti-corruption struggle, where some of its own leading lights have been felled and humiliated in public. The message here is clear: the Party is one with society, not on a different rung. On the whole, what evidence there is shows this has been a popular move amongst wider society. Even so, growth is tightening and problems are stacking up; there is every chance now that increasing numbers of people in China will feel that they are missing out and not doing as well as they could. That means the potential for rising anti-elitism, and its threat to the Party and its personnel because of their naturally privileged role in society, is only likely to increase.
The temptation for the Xi government is to try to distract the public by blaming foreign or external elites for their meddling and interfering. That will create an even more febrile international environment for China and make the complexion of its politics even more nationalistic and off-putting.
Whether changing social attitudes will force Chinese leaders themselves to radically rethink their governance strategy and the ways in which they allow society to participate in their decision-making is largely an unknown issue. This depends on the level of pragmatism and the imaginations of the current elite of elites in Beijing – and until the moment when it becomes absolutely necessary, no one, least of all them, will know know just how they will react, and how far they will go, to placate anti-elitist sentiment in China once it starts to be directed at them.