“Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping US-China Engagement” by Cheng Li


Historian RG Collingwood once wrote that “We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act.” Few people see US-China relations with greater clarity than Cheng Li, who worked as a physician during the Cultural Revolution before earning his PhD in Political Science at Princeton. In his new book Middle Class Shanghai, Li uses the history and culture of the city and its denizens to illustrate how China’s internal dynamism and diversity should inform US policy. 

Li argues that “any assessments of the Chinese middle class and China’s future trajectory should be well grounded in empirical facts.” He lives up to that standard, providing readers with 56 pages of footnotes and a bibliography listing over 500 entries evenly divided between English and Chinese sources. To mention just some of the subjects covered: art, architecture, business, demographics, economics, education, foreign policy, history, infrastructure, political science, sociology, trade, urban planning, and much else, besides. It’s to the author’s credit that such a torrent of information remains not only readable, but enjoyable.

Within the book, five sections read almost like separate essays: on China’s middle class, Shanghai’s history, the city’s role in Chinese Communist Party politics, the impact of students returning from abroad, and Shagnhai’s modern art scene. Through it all, Li remains a reliable guide who eschews easy answers, choosing instead to highlight the ambiguity and uncertainty that accompanies China’s rise.

Li acknowledges the difficulty in even defining the term “middle class”, much less comparing that class across countries with different income levels. By any definition, Li makes a compelling case that China today is a middle class country, at least in urban areas. In 2000, Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” broadened the CCP’s formal constituency to include most, if not all, Chinese who could plausibly consider themselves middle class. And who might that be? Li cites one survey of 5 major cities finding that over 85 percent of respondents self-identified as “middle class.” And no wonder, since Shanghai’s per capita GDP today exceeds $24,000, a level well above many countries in Eastern Europe. According to Li, that development makes Shanghai a bellwether for China’s future.

While its location long made Shanghai an obvious location for shipping and trade, the decisive break occurred when it became an “open port” after the first Opium War. From the next century, Shanghai was a center of foreign influence and innovation: China’s first school for women (1850), English newspaper (1850), cinema (1896) and modern vocational school (1917). But Li reminds readers that it always remained an overwhelmingly Chinese city, albeit one increasingly made up of immigrants from inland China. Shanghai resumed its role as a center of economics and culture in the Reform era. Today a city of over 26 million, it boasts the world’s largest container port and hosts Tesla’s primary “export hub”. Here Li again notes that Shanghai remains a Chinese city in more ways than one; as recently as 2013, state-sponsored enterprises still employed more than a third of Shanghai’s workers.

Communist power still dominates Shanghai, but the city affects the Party in turn. The early 2000s saw the heyday of an extended patronage network centered around former President Jiang Zemin, known as the “Shanghai Gang”. China’s most Western-oriented city effectively served as a training ground for the senior leadership in Beijing, although not without pushback from other factions. Even today, as Xi Jinping consolidates his personal power he’s been mindful to include Jiang’s protegees while apportioning top positions. If this trend holds, it offers the United States a path to influence future Chinese policy; Li notes that Western-educated returnees have been fast-tracked to leadership positions in Shanghai’s city government.


Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping US-China Engagement, Cheng Li (Brookings Institution Press, May 2021)
Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping US-China Engagement, Cheng Li (Brookings Institution Press, May 2021)

Li’s history of the study abroad movement shows that Shanghai has long served as an entrepôt for ideas as well as goods. Students returning from Japan did much to destabilize the late Qing dynasty, to say nothing of later Communist leaders schooled in France and the USSR. Li covers well-trodden ground in discussing the surge of Chinese middle-class undergraduates studying in the US, as well as the graduate students in STEM fields that provoke so much concern in the US Congress. But Li’s background in Maoist China makes for especially interesting reading on the role of lawyers who studied in Western countries. The rule of law as Westerners conceive it represents a radical break with China’s legal history, one that may yet undermine the CCP’s legitimacy. But China’s newly educated middle class has gained more than a different perspective on politics; in Shanghai they have moved from demanding the basic consumer staples to seeking out cultural experiences.

Chinese artists have met that demand. In 2019, Shanghai’s total of 770 art galleries ranked third behind only New York and Paris, and well ahead of cities like London, Rome, and Amsterdam. Moreover, over 80 percent of the city’s 124 museums are privately owned. Art in China today represents an area of expression and exchange outside the Communist party. Like artists everywhere, they challenge many aspects of their society, including the commercialization of art and the potential for globalization to homogenize culture. But Chinese artists do not, and will not, conform to the neat dissident/propaganda dichotomy of Western imagination. In art, as in so many other areas, policymakers would do well to acknowledge China’s complicated realities instead of relying on ideology and assumptions.

Recent years have seen a rash of articles on the alleged “Thucydides Trap” driving conflict between the ruling hegemon and rising power. But simplistic references to Athens and Sparta overlook something vital to Thucydidies: at every step, parties on both sides stressed the vagaries of human events and the potential for military action to end in disaster. Voices of moderation and restraint were often present; the wisdom to heed them was not. In the closing chapter, this book echoes those voices of caution. Shanghai is once again in the vanguard of Chinese culture and politics, pulling the rest of the country towards a more open and pluralistic society. But that new China may only arrive if governments on both sides of the Pacific resist calls for force, isolation, and mercantilism. In light of the alternatives, we should all hope they succeed.

A former US Marine and Iraq war veteran, Dr James Herndon worked in Udaipur, India while completing his PhD in Economics. He currently works as a consultant in Birmingham, Alabama.