(16 December 2011) — As global headlines sway between economic meltdown in the West and violent uprisings in the Middle East, one social group is silently writing its own story in large parts of Asia.
In one of the largest demonstrations in China since the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, a public protest by the people of the northeastern town of Dalian in mid-August this year resulted in authorities shutting down a chemical factory believed to be a health risk after being damaged in a storm.
In the same month, India witnessed a spontaneous middle-class anti-graft movement converging around a previously unheralded hunger-fasting activist Anna Hazare. The government eventually caved in under the force of public opinion and agreed to draft anti-graft legislation.
But this is not just a story of China and India. People’s movements shook political plates across Asia this year.
In July, in a rally that marked the 14th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China, more than 200,000 demonstrators marched in Hong Kong for universal suffrage and against a controversial plan to scrap by-elections.
In same month, more than 20,000 protesters took to the streets of the Malaysian capital city of Kuala Lumpur to demand electoral reform.
Thousands of people in Bhutan also took to social media this year to protest a government ban on public smoking. In Male, Maldives – Asia’s smallest country by population – several thousand demonstrated against the government’s handling of the economy.
Unlike the mass discontent caused by the economic meltdown in Western nations and anger against theocratic regimes in the Middle East, appraisal of growing public protests in parts of Asia makes for an interesting reading.
There can be no single explanation for the new middle class activism that is sweeping across the continent. However, the broad undertone of the trend is that the emerging economies are experiencing socio-political churning brought about by growing political demands of its burgeoning middle classes.
Recent estimates by various international development banks illustrate the point.
According to the Asian Development Bank report Asian Development Outlook 2010: Macroeconomic Management Beyond the Crisis, the Asian middle class (defined as people earning between US$2 and US$20 a day) accounted for 21% of the total population in 1990 and an imposing 56% in 2008.
From a global perspective, Deutsche Bank says Asia’s middle class is one of the fastest growing population groups in the world. Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development projects that the size of Asian middle classes, which now accounts for less than 25% of the world’s middle class population, will double in the next 15 years.
Significantly, a large percentage of the middle class growth class in Asia is occurring outside large global centers like Shanghai or New Delhi, in smaller towns and villages.
On one hand, the development presents a daunting challenge to previously unequipped local governments to pursue policies that help sustain the growing middle class. At the same time it brings an opportunity for the burgeoning middle class to exert pressure on local governments to improve governance and service delivery.
The underlying idea behind the term ‘middle class’ embodies not just the material aspects of a particular section of society, but also – more often than not – its aspirations such as better education and wider exposure to the world beyond the immediate environment. It is this development that encourages the middle class to be more aware of – and consequently, more vocal about – seemingly highbrow matters like civil liberties and free choices.
A survey of 13 emerging markets by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in Washington, DC, the middle classes consistently give more weight to free speech and fair elections than do the poor, who are more concerned about freedom from poverty.
But India had democracy before it had vast wealth and the Chinese middle class was more likely to demand political liberalization prior to the 1989 Tiananmen protests than it is today.
The argument can be extended to Dalian, which is a prosperous town that has reaped the dividends of Beijing’s economic growth. And so overthrowing the Chinese government in favour of a new democratic order is not a burning priority for the city’s middle class. In fact, rural people in China who still do not receive the desired benefits of the nation’s economic boom are more likely to support democracy than the urban middle classes, who are just starting to express themselves on issues of corruption and environment. So what explains the recent spurt in street activism?
Manu Joseph, the editor of Indian news weekly magazine Open, calls India’s anti-corruption movement “a self-righteous middle-class uprising”. In a conversation with a television panel, he said the shock success and the scale of the protests were partly because they were broadcast round the clock on cable TV, the staple diet of the middle classes.
Elsewhere in Asia too, the focus on corruption, environment and governance reforms suggests the current middle-class activism is more of a protest movement towards better service delivery for the middle classes rather than a push for political revolution.
But in most emerging economies, corruption is not a legal matter; it is a highly political one. It is seen as both the cause and effect of undesirable politics. Hence, there exists a real possibility the present middle-class protests — against corruption and service delivery shortcomings — could shape a larger transformation movement in their respective nations.
For that to happen, the middle classes would not just have to ensure economic growth, but also select the most suitable tool for achieving their goal. As long as the middle class in Asia believes that they owe their present affluence to the present day political order, the present protests will not uproot political templates.
Over the years, the Western idea that political freedom is essential for economic freedom has lost credibility in the East, especially in China. The present financial troubles of Europe and the US may further discourage the middle class of Asia from effecting a systemic change.