Lifestyle & Belief

A middle-class revolution in Asia?


A new day breaks in Beijing on June 25, 2011 behind the central business district skyline with the city's tallest building, the China World Trade Tower 3.


Frederic J. Brown

With mass graves in Lybia and tanks rolling through Syria, it's easy to underestimate the unrest we're reading about in India and China.

Afterall, activist Anna Hazare succeeded this week in getting the government in India to agree to an independent, anti-corruption body.

And in a rare and recent victory for protesters in China, the northeastern city of Dalian said they would shut down a chemical plant residents feared had been damaged in a storm.

People had had enough, but authorities appeared to take notice, listen and even take some action.

Unlike the Arab Spring, which is more focused on bringing governments down, India and China want the governments they already have to be better — or rather, to be free of corruption.

In another example, just weeks before the Dalian protests, a high-speed rail crash in eastern China that killed 40 people was blamed on the negligence of officials in charge. Seems a logical enough thing to protest.

But government corruption isn't new and disaster has struck before. So, why are people in India and China ready to take to the streets now?

The latest issue of the Economist lays out a clear, if not groundbreaking, assessment: It's all because of the middle class.

Which is growing.

A lot.

The most plausible [explanation] is that India and China — and possibly other emerging markets, too — are experiencing the early stirrings of political demands by the growing ranks of their middle classes.

According to Martin Ravallion of the World Bank, the middle classes (defined as people earning between $2 and $13 a day) trebled in number between 1990 and 2005 in developing Asia to 1.5 billion ...

Newer estimates from the Asian and African Development Banks, using a definition of $2-20 a day, confirm the picture (see below). They show that the middle classes (which, on their definitions, include many only just out of poverty) accounted for ... almost 90% of China’s.

Now, the world over, it's the middle class who has the luxury of caring about things like free speech and fair elections. The poor have more pressing concerns.

While this is hardly breaking news on a conceptual level, it is worth noting that what we are seeing on the ground in India and China is the phenomenon in real time.

Cable TV played a key role in the success of Hazare's demonstrations. And it didn't hurt when Bollywood stars like Aamir Khan joined the fight. Dalian is a wealthy port city associated with the rising middle class. And the high-speed rail is mostly a middle-class concern.

As the Economist points out, the seeds of revolution start somewhere:

This focus on corruption suggests that, at the moment, middle-class activism is a protest movement rather than a political force in the broader sense. It is an attempt to reform the government, not replace it. But that could change.

From the Economist: