Seymour Martin Lipset famously argued that economic development would enlarge the middle class, and that the middle class would demand democracy. Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy, Andrew J. Nathan tries to piece together “The Puzzle of the Chinese Middle Class,” examining whether this proposition is likely to hold true in China.
As long as the Chinese economy continues to grow at something like its current annual rate (supposedly 7 percent, but perhaps more accurately around 5 percent) and the political system remains stable, the middle class will continue to expand. The implications of this scenario for democracy are mixed. Chinese sociologists hope that rising prosperity will diminish social conflict, and that a pro-stability middle class will support the regime. On the other hand, if the values of the middle class continue to become more liberal, its sense of alienation from the political system will grow, even if it continues to tolerate a regime that keeps delivering prosperity.