BEFORE the late 1990s China barely had a middle class. In 2000, 5m households made between $11,500 and $43,000 a year in current dollars; today 225m do. By 2020 the ranks of the Chinese middle class may well outnumber Europeans. This stunning development has boosted growth around the world and transformed China. Paddyfields have given way to skyscrapers, bicycles to traffic jams. An inward-looking nation has grown more cosmopolitan: last year Chinese people took 120m trips abroad, a fourfold rise in a decade. A vast Chinese chattering class has sprung up on social media.

However, something is missing. In other authoritarian countries that grew rich, the new middle classes demanded political change. In South Korea student-led protests in the 1980s helped end military rule. In Taiwan in the 1990s middle-class demands for democracy led an authoritarian government to allow free elections.

Many pundits believe that China is an exception to this pattern. Plenty of Chinese cities are now as rich as South Korea and Taiwan were when they began to change. Yet, since tanks crushed protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, China has seen no big rallies for democracy. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has shown nothing but contempt for democratic politics.

There is evidence that this approach works. The hardline Mr Xi is widely admired in China as a strongman and a fighter against corruption. Few middle-class Chinese people say they want democracy, and not just because speaking up might get them into trouble. Many look at the chaos that followed the Arab spring, and recoil. Some see Britain’s decision to leave the European Union as a sign that ordinary voters cannot be trusted to resolve complex political questions. The Chinese government may be ruthless towards its critics, but at least it lets its people make money. So long as they keep out of politics, they can say and do pretty much what they want.

Anxious times

Scratch the surface, however, and China’s middle class is far from content (see our special report in this issue). Its members are prosperous, but they feel insecure. They worry about who will look after them when they grow old; most couples have only one child, and the public safety-net is rudimentary. They fret that, if they fall ill, hospital bills may wipe out their wealth. If they own a home, as 80% of them do, they fear losing it; property rights in China can be overturned at the whim of a greedy official. They worry about their savings, too; banks offer derisory interest rates and alternative investments are regulated badly or not at all. No Ponzi scheme in history ensnared more investors than the one that collapsed in China in January.

Many middle-class Chinese are also angry. Plenty scoff when they are force-fed Marxism. Even more rage about corruption, which blights every industry and activity, and about nepotism, which rewards connections over talent and hard work. Nearly all fume about pollution, which clogs their lungs, shortens their lives and harms their children. They cannot help noticing that some polluters with important friends foul the air, soil and water with impunity.

And some feel frustrated. China has well over 2m non-governmental organisations. Many of those working for them are middle-class people trying to make their society better, independently of the party. Some are agitating for a cleaner environment, for fairer treatment of workers, or for an end to discrimination against women, or gay people, or migrants. None of these groups openly challenges the party’s monopoly of power, but they often object to the way it wields it.

The party understands that the middle class, which includes many of its 88m members, is the bedrock of its support. When Mr Xi came to power in 2012, he echoed America with inspiring pro-middle-class talk of a “Chinese dream”. The party gauges public opinion in an attempt to respond to expectations and relieve social pressures.

Even so, it is hard to imagine China’s problems being solved without more transparent, accountable government. Without the rule of law—which Mr Xi professes to believe in—no individual’s property or person can truly be safe. Without a more open system of government, corruption cannot systematically be detected and stamped out. And without freedom of speech, the NGOs will not bring about change.

The middle rages

After thousands of years of tumultuous history and more recent memories of the bloody Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the Chinese often say that they have a deeply ingrained fear of chaos. But nearly half of all people living in cities are under 35. They know little about Mao-era anarchy. When they feel the government is not listening, some are willing to stand up and complain. Take the thousands of middle-class people in the southern Chinese town of Lubu, who protested on July 3rd over plans to build a waste-incinerator there. They battled with police and tried to storm government offices.

Such protests are common. There were 180,000 in 2010, according to Tsinghua University, since when there have been no good estimates. When growth was rapid, stability followed, but as the economy slows, unrest is likely to spread, especially as the party must make hard choices like shutting factories, restructuring state-owned enterprises and curbing pollution.

Ultimately the fate of middle-class protests is likely to depend on the party elite. The pro-democracy movement of 1989 took off because some of its members also favoured reform. There is no sign of another Tiananmen, but there are tensions within the leadership. Mr Xi has made enemies with his anti-corruption purges, which seem to hit rivals harder than allies (a recent target is a former chief aide to Hu Jintao, his predecessor—see article). Mr Xi’s colleagues are jockeying for power.

The party may fend off challenges for many years. China’s vast state-security apparatus moves quickly to crush unrest. Yet to rely on repression alone would be a mistake. China’s middle class will grow and so, too, will its demands for change. The party must start to meet those demands, or the world’s biggest middle class may yet destroy it.