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Why China is not Egypt (or Yemen, or Tunisia, or Bahrain)

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 16, 2011

Protesters from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions demonstrate outside the Egyptian Consulate in Hong Kong

Protesters from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions demonstrate outside the Egyptian Consulate in Hong Kong February 8, 2011, in response to the "Day of Action for Democracy in Egypt" called by the International Trade Union Confederation. (Bobby Yip/Courtesy Reuters)

Earlier, I posted on China’s reaction to the uprising in Egypt, which was basically to try to shut down any coverage of the protests in the Chinese media at all. Some reporters and commentors have suggested that this is a sign of China’s instability, that it bears some resemblance to the Arab-Muslim states now feeling the heat. Though I wish that were true, it’s probably not. Why?

1. China’s urbanites haven’t turned against the regime

Unlike the educated and secular men and women who thronged to the central squares in Cairo, many Chinese urbanites essentially support, or tolerate, the regime. And why not? The government has been very, very good to them, as Minxin Pei documented in his book China’s Trapped Transition. High growth, perks for professors and urban dwellers, restrictions on rural people’s housing and schools – all of these are reasons why urbanites, in polls, show high appreciation of the current state of affairs.

2. China’s leaders aren’t as out of touch, isolated, and brittle as those in the Middle East

The CCP leadership is not Hosni Mubarak. It is an authoritarian regime, but a collective one, one that does have some response to public opinion – see the 2008 Tibet protests, or China’s crackdowns on infant formula fakers – and uses its collective to make shared decisions that do not rest on the shoulders of one man or woman. The leadership has proven relatively flexible and tenacious, able to adapt to changing international currents, and to co-opt some of the finest political and business talent into the Party.

3. China’s economy is booming

In Tunisia, and then in Egypt, protests erupted after immolations by young men who, though they had undergraduate degrees, were unable to find work in economies that could not keep pace with growing populations. Though Chinese university graduates certainly have a tougher time finding jobs than they did several years ago, the Chinese economy continues to boom, and with appropriate skills, educated young men and women still can find high-paying jobs, particularly if they are willing to move to interior cities that have been prioritized by the central government.

4. Foreign actors don’t have much role to play

Though the U.S. role in Egypt and the French role in Tunisia might be overstated at times, certainly the vast amount of U.S. aid to Cairo and the longstanding military-military ties did mean that many average Egyptians were closely watching President Obama to see how he would respond to the anti-Mubarak demonstrations. The era of Chinese intellectuals and pro-democracy activists looking clearly to the United States for guidance, if that ever existed, is over. (Was the “Goddess of Democracy” sculpture in Tiananmen Square in 1989 really some kind of pro-American stance? I’m not sure.) Any change that happens in China in the near, or far, future, is going to come from domestic events, not from external pressure.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Tan

    Maybe because Egypt is too far away and different from China. A revolution in Myanmar, Vietnam or North Korea would have much more impact on China.

  • Posted by Jack Fensterstock

    You continue to state that “China’s reaction to the uprising in Egypt, which is (sic) basically to try to shut down any coverage of the protests in the Chinese media at all” continues to mirror others and I wonder how much time you spend monitoring the Chinese media for this conclusion. How about for example, viewing CCTV English and you will see extensive coverage ranging from the North Lawn of the White House to the streets of Cairo and other locales.

  • Posted by LOL

    That picture is from Hong Kong SAR, which is NOT Mainland China…. In HK, there is freedom of speech, but in Mainland China, such protests are not prevalent at all due to strict censorship and control on protests.

  • Posted by El

    You reference China’s crackdown on producers of melamine-tainted baby formula. What about the purveyors of plastic rice, the poor farmers forced to grow rice in southern, cadmium-infiltrated fields? What about the five months in 2010 in which Beijing knew full well that Cammillie oil produced in Hunan – the main vegoil for that province – was contaminated with carcinogens but chose not to disclose that fact to consumers? Oh yeah, the government is really “good” to urban dwellers. And your reference to the era (if any) of Chinese intellectuals and pro-democracy activists looking to the U.S. for guidance is incredible. China has never had an era of fascination with the U.S.; not its politics or its economy or its society. China has been a communist state since 1949 and remains one today. There is no room for idealism beyond the collectivist realm.

  • Posted by News Isnt Blocked

    Can all you Western ‘journalists’ please stop repeating the lie that news on Egypt was blocked in China?
    I think on the first day, Egpyt was censored by The Great Firewall but it was still reported on CCTV and other news outlets in China. Since then nothing has been censored on the internet or Egypt has been covered intensively in China.

  • Posted by RousseauChen

    China does not need a revolution. China needs evolution and more evolution in the political arena. Egypt could be a mess after the revolution. Be careful of what you wish for. So why China should be like Egypt if it means disaster for the nation. I mean Egypt’s new leader could be worse than Mubarak.

  • Posted by Jianjun Wei

    “Though I wish that were true…” So you wish China is instable, huh? I guess to most of the Chinese people, this speaks volumes. I write down this post not to react to the author but just want to point it out to my fellow Chinese people who read this article.

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