The Wal-Mart dialectic

For business reasons, Wal-Mart allows Communists to get organized. Meanwhile, China's middle class gets restive

Published December 18, 2006 5:15PM (EST)

You know the headline writers at the Wall Street Journal loved cooking up this one: "Wal-Mart Workers in China Set Up Communist Party Branch." Who doesn't love marrying an icon of bottom-line capitalism with living, breathing Marxism-Leninism? Wal-Mart executives are so dedicated to business success in China that they will agree to anything, including the forming of trade unions and Communist Party branches in their stores.

The Journal explains: "Other multinational companies operating in China also have party branches, and analysts say they generally don't interfere with such companies' management. The party's constitution requires that any company with more than three party members among its employees set up a branch."

So, no big deal, right? Just another quirk of China's strange brew of a market economy and totalitarian one-party rule. But let's pair it with another Monday morning story, this one from the New York Times' Howard French, who details the rise of the middle class in Shenzhen, China's original experiment in economic reform.

In Shenzhen, an organized campaign by citizens altered the city's plan to build an expressway that "would cut through the heart of their congested, middle-class neighborhood." The successful effort "became a landmark in citizen efforts to win concessions from a government that by tradition brooked no opposition."

French's story is a classic supporting example of the theory that economic growth, even in an authoritarian country, will nurture a "civil society" whose brawny middle class starts demanding more rights vis a vis the state. It's a theory that many political scientists these days scoff at, declaring that there is no inherent contradiction between one-party rule and economic growth. But if the citizens of Shenzhen can modify the plans for an expressway, what's next on their list? An end to press censorship? Clean water and air? Democratic elections?

The Chinese Communist Party must be getting nervous. This kind of stuff could easily get out of control! Next thing you know, Chinese citizens will be taking lessons from their empowered fellow bourgeoisie across the Pacific, and start organizing to block the construction of new Wal-Marts! Lenin would no doubt approve, and somewhere, Chairman Mao is smirking.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Communism Globalization How The World Works Wal-mart