Quick quiz: What do two of the market's biggest recent headlines related to China—Smithfield Foods' proposed acquisition by Shuanghui International, and the GlaxoSmithKline corruption case—have to do with the anger recently on display from samba-dancing, soccer-loving Brazilians?
The answer: Both are tied to the rise of a global middle class discovering it has a greater voice in business, political and social issues, and it's an opportunity that the populace can't afford to let pass.
"This large mass of people coming into the middle class have more political awareness and more desire for inclusion and voice than people might have had in the past," said Uri Dadush, senior associate and director of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace's International Economics Program.
"Glaxo is a middle-class issue because only the middle class can afford drugs," said Homi Kharas, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. It's also a well-reported fact that as China's middle class expands it is becoming a much larger protein consumer. But it's more than just the purchasing power of the emerging world's rising middle class, whether it's drugs or pork, and especially when viewed in terms of protest movements like we've seen recently in Brazil.
It's about a once-in-a-generation opportunity to play a role in shaping societal institutions, whether that be the balance between government regulation and a market-based health-care system, or food safety and environmentally sound food production.
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"On the one had you want to free up the market for the private sector to let middle-class purchases take place, but as you do, and in the case of Glaxo, you can get abuses. It's the middle class that's driving different models of how you deliver health care," Kharas said.
And the crux of it applies to most major institutions where the middle class comprises the majority of use: "The system becomes harder to reform over time, and you better start to think, 'Is this the system I want at the end of the day?'" Kharas asked.
Rising income is synonymous with rising concern about a variety of issues.
"In some ways, what drives protests in any given country will vary, but if you look around at Brazil and Turkey, it is consistent with the narrative of what happens when you get a growing middle class," said Christian Meyer, research associate at the Center for Global Development. "Expectations rise and people are more concerned with issues beyond economic growth."
The Center for Global Development's research suggests that amid the protest movements in countries including Brazil, what we are witnessing is twofold: one is the growing voice of the actual middle class over an increasing number of issues, but less well known and studied is the group between the poor and the middle class: "the strugglers," as he calls them.
It's the strugglers that may define the broadest middle-class expansion in the future, and that makes this group the key one in viewing the recent protest movement as a trend more nuanced than just a cry from the middle class. These are people still exposed to significant economic risks, such as the bus fare increases in Brazil, shocks that true middle-class Brazilians could absorb.
"If they go on the streets because of bus fare increases these are strugglers. They are not truly poor anymore, and they could potentially be part of the middle class," Meyer said. "The ones focused on corruption are the middle class," he added.