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Reached middle-class status? Start complaining about it

Several hundred of 200,000 pro-democracy student protesters face to face with policemen outside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square 22 April 1989 in Beijing.
Catherine Henriette | AFP | Getty Images
Several hundred of 200,000 pro-democracy student protesters face to face with policemen outside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square 22 April 1989 in Beijing.

In China, one of the greatest economic transformations in history is taking place, as millions move from poverty into the middle class. But, ironically, just as they start earning enough to lead a life of some comfort, the Chinese are growing frustrated with income inequality. Luxury brands and millionaires are proliferating, while many average citizens believe they are not getting their fair share of the economic spoils. Increasingly, the Chinese see their country as one of haves and have-nots.

Sound familiar? The same 1 percent versus 99 percent divide that has become a political current in the U.S. is bound to have its global moment as the worldwide middle class rises.

China isn't the only emerging nation with this type of problem. Concerns about inequality are common in many countries, and the recent street protests in Brazil and Turkey illustrate how economic success can spawn middle-class aspirations and demands, as well as capacities for demanding political change.

China is obviously very different from Brazil and Turkey, and mass demonstrations in the People's Republic are unlikely anytime soon, but it is clear that the Chinese middle class is growing restless, too. It's not certain yet how these emerging issues will manifest themselves in Chinese politics, but they eventually may prove a cause for concern among that nation's 1 percent.

(Read more: Why China goes crazy on Singles Day)

Despite the rising worries about inequality, no one can deny China's economic success over the past three decades. Though the country's growth rate is now slowing, at 7.5 percent it remains the envy of most nations. And overall, the people are pleased with the economic situation. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted this spring, 88 percent said the national economy was in good shape.

Moreover, the Chinese overwhelmingly recognize how much they have advanced economicallyin a 2012 Pew Research survey, 92 percent said they are doing better financially than their parents' generation, the highest percentage among the 21 nations polled. And there is considerable optimism about the future, with 82 percent saying that the current generation of children will be better off than their parents.

The material trappings of success are increasingly common in China, especially in major cities, where car ownership and real estate prices have soared. As incomes rise, well-heeled consumers are developing an appetite for imported luxury goods. According to the management consulting firm McKinsey, by 2015 "one-third of the money spent around the world on high-end bags, shoes, watches, jewelry, and ready-to-wear clothing will come from Chinese consumers."

(Read more: Why keeping up with the Joneses just got tougher)

However, the vast majority of Chinese are hardly living a life of opulence. Instead, they feel they are being left behind in a country where the 1 percent is enjoying a disproportionate share of economic benefits. The 2013 poll found 87 percent describing the gap between rich and poor as a big problem. About half (52 percent) believe it is a very big problem, up from 41 percent five years ago. Meanwhile, roughly seven-in-10 (69 percent) say the gap has gotten worse in recent years.

In 2012, 81 percent at least somewhat agreed with the statement, "Today it's really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer," and 45 percent agreed completely. The Chinese have a reputation as hard workers, but many question whether hard work will ultimately pay off. Less than half agree with the statement, "Most people can succeed if they are willing to work hard," and those in lower-income groups are especially unlikely to agree.

(Read more: The elusive nature of the new middle class)

Worries about inequality are part of a broader set of rising concerns in China. In particular, many people are frustrated by political corruption. This month, former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai will go on trial for abuse of power in the most sensational political scandal in China in years, but Bo's fall from grace is only one of many recent high-profile stories about corrupt officials. In last year's poll, 50 percent described public corruption as a very big problem, up significantly from 39 percent in 2008.

In many ways, the issue of corruption is linked to the issue of inequality. Political elites like Bo can use their power and connections to amass considerable fortunes in a country where per capita income is still less than $10,000 a year. By one count, the National People's Congress, China's main legislative body, is home to 31 billionaires (the U.S. Congress, in contrast, has none).

Concerns about the environment and demands for stronger consumer protections also are increasing—just the kind of issues you would expect to gain traction in an increasingly middle-class nation, especially one with remarkably hazardous levels of air pollution and continual high-profile food safety scandals.

Rising incomes have led to rising expectations, and in today's China people are worried not only about growth but about fairness and health. They want a system that gives them a fair shot at economic opportunity and protects them against environmental dangers and unsafe products. Whether President Xi Jinping and the country's new leadership can satisfy these growing concerns, and whether a one-party state can handle the demands of an expanding middle class, remains to be seen.

Occupy Tiananmen Square? Maybe not anytime soon, but maybe.

—By Richard Wike

Richard Wike is associate director of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project. Follow him on Twitter @RichardWike.

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