There are several other possible viewpoints.
First, it takes time to catch up. In particular the Chinese middle class remains fractured between groups such as rural small businesses and urban professionals, whereas in other nations such distinctions were reduced through the development of educational and cultural institutions.
Second, things may not be what they seem from simple anti-Chinese reportage.
The World Economic Forum, based in Geneva, produces the annual Global Competitiveness Report based on 162 points of qualitative data. The last two reports contain one of the fullest attempts at quantifying the institutions of middle-class life across 140 nations.
Within the national rankings, China is generally above middle on all criteria, and looks in no way abnormal in terms of indicators of the strength and progress of middle-class life. It performs especially well on the more objective items, such as primary education enrolment and Internet access, and outmatches India on all items except the most difficult of all to measure, quality of overall public education. Even here it lies above South Korea.
On the other hand, China ranks badly in terms of the difficulty of starting a business, and there seems little doubt that this may hinder the ability of skilled workers with technical initiative to start businesses and achieve middle-class income and status.
This represents a barrier to a traditional entry point into the middle classes that has been of great importance in the history of highly developed industrial nations.
More informally, it may be suggested that China and its middle class are moving slowly, if unsurely, in the right direction. Reform-minded lawyers and weiquan (維權) civil rights movements have become increasingly effective in furthering middle class environs through the advancement of human rights and the creation of collective cases.
Internet protest, particularly through Sina Weibo, a microblog similar to Twitter, has effectively mobilized condemnation of the practice of “re-education through labor”’ — whereby the police can lock people away without due process — and led to recent labor camp reforms.
These are the big items that hit the news. More mundane, yet profound, is the evidence of the malls and the cheap markets, where literally millions of the young middle-class exercise everyday democracy through their purchases.
In any bookstore in a major shopping mall in the big cities, displays will combine the works of George Orwell, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or a DVD collection of The Essential Bob Dylan for around 45 yuan or less. Biographies of Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) in English and Chinese proliferate, as do DVDs of his life at around 45 yuan. The nationalist history of Taiwan is also well represented.
Popular politics in the form of Western biographies are widely available in both English and Chinese, the latter slightly cheaper.
Western television shows are less often seen for sale as locals in cities such as Beijing eschew the mall by watching the originals online, in many cases for free.
From mall to stall to Internet, the large middle class of China cannot simply be characterized as hidebound bigots, strangled by restrictions, excluded from exposure to Western democratic history and values. Repeating such claims ad nauseam does not make them true.