Rise Of The Princelings, And The End Of The 'Chinese Dream'

A migrant worker in Shanghai
A migrant worker in Shanghai
Qi Yue

BEIJING - What exactly is the Chinese dream? You could define it using current key words buzzing on the Internet: “the counter-attack of the diao-sze”, meaning the little people, and in particular the poor who succeed in raising their status in society through their own great efforts.

The Chinese dream is related to the “American Dream.” They are not much different in their core meaning; one gains a better life through one’s own continuous hard work. It means that people have to achieve prosperity through their own labor, courage, creativity and determination, rather than by belonging to a specific social class or relying on the assistance of others.

A society with a “dream” is a society full of hope. A few years ago, an essay that was circulating online called “I struggled for 18 years to be able to sit down and have coffee with you..” provoked a lot of both comment and sentiment in China. In the essay, the author, a son of a farmer, depicted how he struggled through long years of hard work and a university degree to change his place in society.

Part of the blame is the unfair household registration (hukou) system that still deprives most migrant workers’ children of equal access to school, to medical insurance, as well as any chance of a formal job in the cities.

If the article threw into relief the inequality of Chinese society, at least, there was still somehow hope in the author’s bitterness.

Alas, today’s China is facing a different plight, where it would be true to say: “I have been struggling for 18 years, and I still can’t have coffee with you...” In sociological terms what is happening is class-solidification. The solidification refers to the fact that social mobility is no longer smooth. Each class is closed up in its own small circle. There’s no more flow either up or down, but only inter-generation transmission.

In Chinese practice, this means the appearance of terms such as “Princelings”, “2G Rich”, and the “2G migrant-workers.” The chance to rise up in society no longer depends on one’s diligence or guts but rather a “competition of one’s parents” (pindie). The Chinese dream is disappearing.

Dou Xiaohong, a demographic scholar, conducted a survey recently. Using birthplaces, age, and education level he extracted several groups of graduates from a college in Hunan Province so as to analyze the relationship between their career development and their family background. The investigation concluded that the occupational status of the parents largely determines their children’s career path.

And how did the public respond to such a conclusion? According to the investigation, 76% of respondents fully agree with the findings.

The conclusion was confirmed in another study, at Tsinghua University, called “How parents’ political capital affects university graduates’ performance in the labor market.” It stated that the “princeling” (descendants of powerful Communist party founders) has an average starting salary 13% higher than that of a graduate from an ordinary family background.

The report pointed out that in relation to the parents' other characteristics, such as their “hukou,” income and education, the parents’ political capital plays an even greater role. The possible explanation is that either the princelings’ parents possess special relations with employers, or they have much better access to employment information.

Such data won't surprise many. Among the endless shady dealings in the enrollment of China’s civil servants, officials too often offer a blatant leg up to their own children. Such behavior is so common that people call the recruitment exams for governmental officials “the princelings’ highway” and “the narrow trail of the grassroots children.

The Chinese dream disappears as social fairness dwindles. A society’s fairness manifests in three aspects: the starting point, the rules and the opportunities. Yet, all three of these aspects face serious deficiencies in China.

The equality of access to education is the basis for a fair starting point. But statistics show that fewer and fewer children from rural areas enter the top schools, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University. In other words, the probability that one changes one’s fate through knowledge is getting more and more rare.

As for the lack of fairness of rules, it’s most evident in the enrollment of civil servants.

And finally, how about the fairness of opportunity? In the current social transition from getting rich through labor to getting rich through existing wealth, the low-income class who lack protection are oppressed by high housing costs and high prices.

When China first started its economic reforms and opened itself up, society was full of hope that everybody would benefit. This optimism then was not because people thought society was perfect, but because so much was to be restored and reinvigorated -- and the starting point, rules and opportunities were relatively fair for everyone.

A society with more fairness, openness and transparency will allow for a smooth migration among classes. We need cleaner government, a more open market, and more transparent rules to operate. Only if we invest in building these foundations can our society avoid the class-solidification, ruptures and conflicts that are undermining our entire society.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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