Most historians agree that the rise of democracy and liberalism were connected to the development of national middle classes in Europe and the US, and their dependence upon the individualism and aggression associated with competitive markets.
Individualism in the market place spelt democracy in action.
However imperfect those markets could be, at times failing to produce public amenities such as swimming pools or hospitals, and all too often creating monopolies, pollution and gangsters, the general prosperity arising from them increased the political weight of all the middle-class people who worked and profited within them. Thus democracy became a reflection of industrial success, not a cause of it.
So far so good. With plenty of setbacks, this story continued through the 20th century and into the present. The awful character of early 20th-century Japanese politics was eventually mitigated by a combination of industrialism, war and the US occupation (1945 to 1952). Subsequent growth of the Japanese economy and the middle classes (especially owners of prospering small firms) led to much more democratic politics during the 1980s and 1990s.
Newly industrialized economies in East Asia, particularly South Korea and Taiwan, after much hesitancy and many battles achieved economic growth, the strong and speedy emergence of their middle classes and some liberalization of nationalist-style governance.
This led to democratic voting, a pluralism embedded in competing political parties and the increased influence and competence of a politically critical printed and electronic media.
One of the strategies of the EU is that extending membership to less developed systems further east will have an impact on middle class cultures that might in turn increase democratic urges throughout the whole of Europe.
However, for many commentators the 30 years of economic growth in communist China is seen as a barrier to this global sequence from economy to polity.
Many reasons are given, but the most frequent surrounds the seeming failure of the Chinese middle class to really “be” a middle class, and to act according to the gifts of history.
Counting all government officials, management, businessmen, professionals and clerical workers, the percentage of middle-class people in 2006 was about 19.5 percent of a total population of 1.31 billion, or about 260 million people. This includes all clerical workers, but excludes the self-employed (getihu, 個體戶) and service workers, 10 percent or more of the employed population.
A sophisticated analysis by Jing Yang judges the Chinese middle class to have been growing at 1 percent per annum over 30 years, yielding an outcome of 39.1 percent of the population by 2006, including self-employed and low-entry non-manual workers.
In terms of income or employment there may be as many as 300 million middle-class people living in China today.
Such huge numbers of nominally middle-class Chinese — equivalent to the entire populations of the US or Western Europe — should, in theory, make a difference to China.
Some argue that the Chinese middle class is so unusual and under-developed that its existence will not continue the historical trend of liberalization and democracy that has been witnessed in the rest of the world.
In Taiwan such attitudes coalesce around the idea that China is, and always will be, the enemy. The final step in this attitude is that Taiwanese political life continues to revolve around this single issue, and this is not healthy for democracy.