Protesters put umbrellas on a street during the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in October 2014.

Asian Middle Classes – Drivers of Political Change?

Asia's growing middle classes have been exceptionally influential not only in the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, but also in many other recent political developments in China, Indonesia, Thailand and India. Four authors examine that role in the new issue of the Asia Policy Brief.

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Experts on Asian affairs have been kept exceptionally busy by recent political developments in the region. An unprecedented landslide victory in India's general elections, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, close elections in Indonesia, a coup in Thailand – the list goes on. As unrelated as these events appear, analysts may find a missing link among a social group that is currently exploding in numbers: Asia's middle classes. Often discussed simply in terms of its economic potential, Asia's middle-income population is also flexing its political muscle.

In the new issue of the Asia Policy Brief, Serhat Ünaldi, Cora Jungbluth, Bernhard Bartsch (Bertelsmann Stiftung) and Clemens Spiess (Robert Bosch Stiftung) examine the role of Asian middle classes in recent political developments in China, Indonesia, Thailand and India. According to recent estimations by the Brookings Institution, the Asia-Pacific region will account for two thirds of the world's middle-class population by 2030. Although this will inevitably increase the influence of the Asian middle classes, growing numbers and power do not translate into democratization in any straightforward manner.

The authors argue that expectations of a quick democratization brought about by the growing middle classes in Asia are misplaced. In fact, conservative middle classes often use their numbers and political clout to prevent democratization from happening. Across the Asia-Pacific region sections of the middle classes are supporting anciens régimes. The presence of a substantial middle class does not automatically correspond to an acceleration of democratization – quite the reverse. In some places, an already established middle class has even sought to disenfranchise a new and rising middle class, which the old guard considers an annoying competitor. As long as members of the dominant middle class feel that their immediate interests are served by defending the status quo, there seems to be no need for them to change the rules of the political game.

In the Asia Policy Briefs, renowned experts and authors from the Bertelsmann Stiftung analyze important developments in Asia and their consequences for Germany and Europe. The short briefing papers focus on current events as well as underlying trends in important Asian countries All Asia Policy Brief editions can be downloaded here. The new edition can be downloaded below.