Recently a video called “Everyone is a tax payer” went viral through social media in China, from Sina the microblog platform to Tudou the video-sharing site. The video explains, via a humorous animation, issues like invisible taxes, the spectacular growth of government income (particularly in comparison to working-class income), and the riddle of where the government spent its huge fiscal income. The popularity of such a video is not an isolated case, the discussion on how the government’s economic policies impact people’s everyday lives is ballooning all over social media in China these days. We are witnessing a new public awareness of structural injustice in Chinese economy and an unseen-before wave of middle class discontent.
This discontent usually focuses on the hidden social impact caused by various macro conditions, so it’s quite different from past social unrest incidents, which are triggered by personal experiences of injustices by migrant workers. But of course discontent intensifies in reaction to particular social events. For example, when China was in talk with European governments about possible participation in the rescue fund for indebted European countries such as Greece, many middle class people in China contended that, if the Chinese government has so much money it should take care of its own people who are suffering from the lack of medicare, pension or affordable housing first, rather than helping Europeans who have much better welfare.
Another example is the set of data about China’s toll road system that is being widely circulated on China’s microblogs. The data show that although China has the world’s longest toll road network but the toll-road departments have a total debt of 2.3 trillion yuan in 2011. “How could that be possible”, this is most netizens’ reaction. China’s highway system is the most expensive to drive on in the whole world, toll stations are so densely peppered on the highways that netizens feel “Every road leads to a toll station”. Every year the toll-road departments of local governments collected trillions of toll fee, but somehow the money wasn’t used to pay back the bank loans and that’s why they end up owing trillions of yuan to the banks. Where did the trillions of toll fee go? That’s a riddle, but the luxurious government buildings and the life style of kids of government officials in foreign countries offer some clues. “What do we pay tax and toll fee for?”, these kind of questions form a major part of “the middle class discontent” that we are witnessing.
It’s amazing that certain numbers are mentioned so often in conversation among China’s middle class that you feel everyone is an economist:
“Government income will be over 10 trillion yuan this year, it grew 30% every year, how much did your wage grow?”
“Inflation is definitely more than the 6% in official reports, but deposit interest is only 0.5%”, “Do you know that our government spent as much money last year on medicare as Greece?!”
The voices of “middle class discontent” are growing louder and louder thanks to social media, and there are signs that the government is taking it more seriously. We already saw some minor tax reforms that aim to alleviate the wage worker’s burden and there have been efforts towards more transparency of government spending in provinces such as Guangdong in southern China. How the government will respond to the heightened awareness of the middle class and the outspoken messages in social media will be an important thing to monitor for any observers of Chinese society.