Beijing’s Harmonious Families Inspire Class Warfare: Adam Minter
On Feb. 3 millions of Beijing families woke up to some odd news from the All-China Women's Federation -- the city’s oldest, and most important, women’s organization. To be eligible for their new "Capital Harmonious Family" award, a family living in Beijing should own a library of at least 300 books, have an Internet connection and subscribe to at least one newspaper. It also wouldn’t hurt if your family traveled frequently, ate out regularly and practiced a low-carbon lifestyle.
It was an elitist turn for an organization that was established in March 1949 to support the Communist Party, the rights and equality of women, and strong families. In the Confucian tradition, harmony in the home is considered a prerequisite to achieving harmony in society. So, in the early 1950s, the ACWF established the “Five Good Families” award for model families that exhibited five virtues, such as “marital harmony” and unwavering support of the party.
In 2007, the Beijing branch of the ACWF renamed the honor the Capital Harmonious Family award to comply with President Hu Jintao’s comprehensive vision for building a harmonious society that promotes economic and social equality. It has been a popular, even iconic competition; the thousands of families who have won it enjoy more prestige and respect from their neighbors.
Over the decades, the criteria for winning the award have changed to reflect both the party’s objectives and the tenor of the times. In 1986, when China was in the early flush of its economic reform, families that sought the award had to “be good at daring to reform." When China was trying to enforce its “one child” population-control policies, the criteria changed to include “be good at family planning.”
For more than four years, the Beijing ACWF has been working with the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences to establish more “scientific criteria” to evaluate potential families for the award. On March 4, 2008, two separate trial criteria -- one for Beijing's urban middle class, and another for its poorer rural, or suburban, class -- were posted to the Beijing ACWF's website. They generated no heat or interest from the press or the public.
That is until Feb. 3, when the Beijing News's Wei Ming reported that the 27 evaluation criteria were close to being finalized. Ninety percent of the criteria for urban families are relatively ordinary, reading in part: “Family status is equal and not affected by differences in age, gender or income; family members are satisfied with their position in the family.” Hardly the stuff that incites Internet flame wars.
But in a fit of sensationalistic inspiration, Wei led the news story by referring to the “trendy” new standards in criteria Nos. 5 and 9, respectively:
Family members spend leisure time together, frequently travel, dine out, shop and engage in other family activities that promote family cohesion and deeper feelings …
The household has a computer, bookcase, desk and other learning tools and study sites; family members have access to the Internet to acquire information, and are frequently online; family’s library totals 300 books and above; subscribes to no fewer than one newspaper or periodical.
For a population that has become acclimated to thinking of its model families as paragons of personal and civic virtue, hearing them now defined in unambiguously material terms set off tempers. Reaction on China’s microblogs was swift and angry, with discussion of the criteria remaining on “hot topic” lists the past week.
“They are selecting families that enjoy life among the upper and corrupt classes,” wrote Little Loach, the handle of a user on Tencent Weibo, China’s second-most popular microblog. “Not harmonious families.”
Han Xiao, another Tencent Weibo user, wrote a more affecting response:
While those who struggle at the bottom of society worry about their livelihoods, or are busy paying the medical bills of the old and the cost of raising children, people with excellent living conditions are showing off that they can surf the Internet … through so-called competitions.
A poll on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog, recorded that 81 percent of the respondents rejected the new criteria entirely.
Despite tremendous economic gains over the past 30 years, few Beijing families can afford the cosmopolitan lifestyle the ACWF outlined. Party officials, however, are often perceived as affluent, living beyond the means of those not in, or connected to, government.
Li Xu, a Tencent user, expressed the sentiment of many Chinese microbloggers when he wrote:
Everyone, and even every family, has a singular definition of happiness. After all, harmony, in its true state, is a natural thing. Why should it be limited by criteria? Don’t encourage society to despise the poor and curry favor with the rich.
Read enough commentary on Tencent and Sina Weibo and two things become very apparent. First, most microbloggers haven’t bothered to read the rest of the selection criteria for urbanites, which largely emphasize inter-family relations and patriotic values. And second, most either haven’t noticed -- or don’t care about -- the separate, condescending evaluation criteria the Beijing ACWF has established for poor families living in Beijing’s rural suburbs.
It’s a pity that they don’t. While the urban standards suggest the gap between Beijing's wealthy elites and its middle class, the so-called suburban standards reflect the elite's perceived distance between Beijing’s middle class and the country’s expansive underclass.
The first few suburban evaluation criteria, like the urban criteria, are unremarkable: Harmonious families should value family, honor the elderly and seek to increase knowledge. Halfway through the list though, things start to diverge significantly.
Whereas urbanites are encouraged to have a library of 300 books, suburbanites are merely encouraged to have a study space with an undefined collection of books. While urbanites are encouraged to recycle, suburbanites are encouraged to develop good personal hygiene and avoid letting their dogs and cats run loose.
Personal virtue is important to both groups, but whereas urbanites are encouraged to love their neighbors, volunteer and help the elderly, suburbanites are reminded that harmonious families do “not engage in superstitious activities, cults or prostitution, gambling and drug abuse.” Beijing’s urban residents, most of whom live within a brief stroll of opportunities to partake in gambling and prostitution, are not required to meet a similar standard to be judged harmonious. Were such a standard required of them, no doubt online reaction would be strident.
But the urban middle class doesn't seem to be offended by the elites' condescension toward the rural Chinese.
Data is spotty, but it is estimated that the average income in China's cities, minus the wealthy, is three times higher than income in the countryside. This gap is the most profound gap in contemporary China: Economically and culturally, China’s urban middle class resembles more the elite class than their poor country cousins.
So why, then, don’t Beijing’s so-called suburbanites object on their own behalf? Presumably because they belong to that half of China that lacks access to the Internet and other (modest) public means of dissent. But even if they had such access, would China’s upwardly mobile middle class really care to listen and sympathize? Until their voices are heard as clearly as those of middle-class netizens, the silence says as much about the distance between Beijing and the countryside as any data set.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.
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