The trade war between Washington and Beijing has been analyzed largely through the lens of state-to-state relations. But any attempt to fully assess how the dispute will affect China’s domestic development and foreign engagement must take into account the country’s dynamic middle class, which has suffered the brunt of the ill effects from the trade war. The Chinese middle class’ political clout and fickle views are among the most intriguing—and consequential—factors affecting U.S.-Chinese relations. Without a solid grasp of the complicated relationship between the Chinese leadership and the country’s middle class, American policymakers and analysts may have difficulty accurately gauging the efficacy of U.S. trade policy toward China.
Over the past few months, members of China’s middle class have been noticeably critical—especially in online public discourse—of the Chinese government’s economic and sociopolitical policies, including the way the leadership has handled relations with the United States. Some suggest that this middle-class discontent threatens President Xi Jinping’s broader position and economic vision and indicates that the United States holds the advantage in the trade dispute with China. But the middle class’ views—which are the foundation of Chinese public opinion more generally—might be poised to turn in the Communist Party’s favor. Although the group has faulted Xi’s leadership, a severe escalation in the trade war could result in a sudden shift of blame to Washington.
INCREASING INFLUENCE MEETS GROWING UNEASE
Never before has China’s fast-growing middle class confronted such daunting economic challenges, which mainly stem from domestic causes but have expanded to include escalating tensions with the United States. As a result, the members of this crucial group have developed an acute sense of anxiety.
China’s stock markets have plummeted about 24 percent from January highs, and the Chinese yuan has fallen about ten percent against the U.S. dollar since the Trump administration first announced China-directed tariffs in early April. Fears that a potential bubble in the property market could
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