We are all familiar with the basic theory. Economic growth = a rising middle class = pressure for democracy.
So what are we to make of events in Thailand? The middle-class of Bangkok are out in the street – but they appear to be agitating for a roll-back of democracy. Forget the fact that their umbrella organisation is called “The People’s Alliance for Democracy” – the PAD’s main demand is highly undemocratic. It wants a new system in which the Thai parliament is 70% appointed.
The PAD seems to be appalled by the fact that because Thailand is still a largely rural society, parties that appeal to the peasantry – through policies like cheap health-care and cheap credit – keep winning elections. They claim that the resultant governments, while democratically-elected, are corrupt and inefficient. And their arguments seem to resonate even with “respectable” mainstream opinion. Take a look at this editorial in the Bangkok Post, which is deeply unsympathetic to Samak Sundaravej, the beleagured democratically-elected prime minister.
What happens in Thailand matters in itself. It’s a country of over 60m people, and one of the biggest economies in South-East Asia.
But the Thai model should also give pause to those who are relying on a rising middle-class to bring democracy to China. Exactly, the same issues that are present in Thailand apply in China, even more forcibly. The urban middle-class may well prefer order and the preservation of its privileges to a democratic system that seems to hand power to the peasantry.