In recent days New York’s Occupy Wall Street protests have found sympathetic echoes in nearly all the world’s major metropolises.
From Tokyo to Johannesburg, London to Mexico City, demonstrators -- self-proclaimedly 99 percent of mankind, but mostly belonging to the educated middle class in their countries -- poured into the streets to express their frustration with what they see as the built-in inequities of global capitalism. It’s more than interesting that no significant gestures of solidarity came from the cities of India and China, two of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
On the face of it, this is not so surprising. The metropolitan Indian and Chinese peers of the young occupiers of Zuccotti Park actually belong to the elite in their respective countries: the prospering 1 percent rather than the left-behind 99 percent. Their faith in capitalism is still young and fresh; they bring to it all the zeal of the recent convert.
Researching an article on Chinese intellectuals a few years ago, I was startled to hear many of them channeling -- as guilelessly as they once had the wisdom of Chairman Mao -- the laissez-faire ideology of the Chicago School. In India, too, born-again Friedman-ites and Hayek-ians have a much greater presence than Keynesians in the mainstream press and television.
I suppose one could also argue that India has already had its popular middle-class upsurge this year: the anti-corruption movement led by the quasi-Gandhian figure Anna Hazare, which is supported by a range of Indian celebrities, including businessmen and film stars.
China, too, has had its moments of middle-class disaffection. In July, the train collision on China’s high-speed rail network near the coastal city of Wenzhou provoked a storm of online criticism. The following month, tens of thousands of well-to-do protesters in Dalian, known as the “Bangalore of China” for its concentration of high-tech businesses, succeeded in closing down a chemical plant.
Such events, which reveal the frustrations of articulate and well-connected people, are widely covered in the international news media. It helps confirm the widespread belief that economic growth in poor countries inevitably creates a progressive-minded middle class -- one that is eager to affirm its rights and to extend them to its underprivileged compatriots.
This is at least how it seems within the information ecosystem of the global middle class, which is attuned to the desires and fears and preoccupations of people who, for instance, might be reading this column. But there exists outside this relatively tiny circle a wide range of forceful dissent among the lower-level toilers of globalization.
The deteriorating condition of the rural poor and urban workers go largely unreported in the business press in both India and China, which specialize in adoring accounts of successful or on-the-make corporate moguls. Nevertheless, agricultural and factory labor constitute the vast majority of the workforce in populous countries like India and China.
They are what shape political life in their nations far more enduringly than the smooth-tongued Tweeters and Facebookers -- such as those in the Hazare movement -- whose revolution, however evanescent, will always be televised. Watching India’s main news channels, you would not realize -- probably because the protesters don’t carry many banners in English, post videos of themselves on YouTube or receive endorsements from Bollywood stars -- that rolling strikes have disrupted production for months now at Maruti Suzuki India Ltd., which makes nearly half the cars sold in India.
You would also have no sense of the gravity of the civil war in central and eastern India, where indigenous groups led by Maoist militants are battling the police and army across a broad swath of commodities-rich forests. Elsewhere, in the Indian villages of Jaitapur and Kudankulam, residents are fiercely resisting planned nuclear power plants.
China, too, manifests all the symptoms of a highly unequal society on the boil. In recent months workers demanding better wages have led strikes across Guangdong Province. In one of a series of similar incidents, migrant workers in Guangdong rioted for days this June after a wage dispute, smashing cars and setting fire to police cars. Sun Liping, a professor of sociology at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, told Bloomberg News that China this year has had an estimated 180,000 “mass incidents” in 2010, double the number in 2006. Certainly, the Communist regime’s wager that continued growth will keep the masses content seems lost.
The prospects of irreversible economic decline and long-term unemployment have begun to visibly shake many middle-class people in rich countries out of their political lethargy. They have the news media fixated. But, though scantily reported, political frustration among the Indian and Chinese majority intensified all through the last decade. This was despite --some might even say, because of -- record-breaking economic growth in India and China.
Ruling elites in both countries, democratic and autocratic, have found that great prosperity for some -- and the endlessly deferred promise of it to the rest -- is a recipe for political instability, even violence. Although India and China may seem the new heartlands of global capitalism, the struggles for fairness and justice there long predate the Occupy Wall Street movement, and will continue long after Zuccotti Park has been vacated.
(Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra in London at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org.