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.
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.
Within this alternative picture of tortured but visible cultural progress, what is the best policy for Taiwan?
With major changes occurring at the apex of the Chinese political system, Taiwanese should embrace a strategy of non-governmental activities assisted by government grants and administration assistance.
Through tourism, joint media ventures, education, cultural policy, city rejuvenations and major events planning, greater understanding can be promoted.
Political dialogue should focus on cultural projects at the highest level between parties in Taiwan, and across contending interests in China.
Youth culture and employment policies could promote greater understanding between the two nations through internships and student exchanges.
Encouragement should be given to low-cost strategies of rapprochement that in no way reduce Taiwanese sovereignty and are pursued at a global level –— such as joint projects in other nations, especially in Africa, Brazil and India.
This may be labeled cultural stealth, but it is an approach that could be effective at relatively low cost, involves partnerships in which Taiwan is at least an equal and may have the upper hand, and is more positive in terms of internal Taiwanese politics than is the present emphasis on “handling China,” which is at best an issue beyond any one party’s control.
Ian Inkster is professor of international history at Nottingham Trent University and professor of global history at Wenzao Ursuline College.