The other thing is to distinguish between the “middle class” and the rest. One article I read suggested that the government had written off most of the north-east; being isolated from outside influences and temptations, they were less of a problem and the government ignored a lot of infrastructure development (roads, rail, hospitals, education, etc.) to save money. Even out in the more accessible countryside, the peasants would have less effort spent on their education than the middle elite in the towns. Thus, the children of doctors and professors and bureaucrats tend to get all the breaks, their parents use their influence to get them into the “right” schools, etc. This is the group that gets to see westerners and buys and sells technology on the black market. The rest, the government just keeps an eye out for troublemakers.
Another article mentioned the abortive attempts at reform and free markets. Suddenly some famers were getting very rich selling produce (theirs or stolen from the collective) on the semi-legit “grey” market. Along with that, some army people were getting very rich - after all, if you commanded a military base with large trucks, you had the only commercial transportation available to free marketeers, so for a price, the army supplied the market transport.
The problem KJI realized was that people with money did not need to rely on those above for power or influence, they could buy it. This is why they’ve resisted reforms for decades - free markets create alternate sources of influence that could destabilize the regime. Somewhere in the early 2000’s they cancelled the market changes, and re-issued their currency. They also limited the amount anyone could trade in, effectively destroying private wealthy entrepreneurs overnight.
However, during that time (and since) there’s been a lucrative market in foreign goods, smuggled from China. Cell phones were banned, then only available to the privileged few. One article mentioned that market openness brought a greater awareness of the outside to the middle classes. The crackdown has had a moderate effect, but the author mentioned that the level of cynicism, and surprisingly open cynicism expressed in the “right” sort of company, was much higher. He mentioned younger elite wearing blatantly modern brand name clothing, using forbidden cell phones (but talking from a moving bicycle to fool the radio locator types). Where they used to have a cowed and fooled middle class, they now have a cynical and passive but aware population.
It is, after all, difficult for the elite in science, as mentioned by previous posters, to learn the wide range of information available without being aware of the outside world. They didn’t develop most of the material science - metallurgy, machining, electronic controls, etc. - required to build rockets, atomic bombs and reactors, separation facilities, let alone trains and automobiles, without having a decent number of people free to research their field with information from across the world. The more complex their society becomes, the more such people are needed. The more such information moves onto the internet, the more their educational elite, security police, etc. need to move too.