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Why China Is More Like the Middle East Than We Think

by Elizabeth C. Economy
March 3, 2011

Policemen watch a crowd that gathered outside a McDonald's restaurant after internet social networks called for a "Jasmine Revolution" protest in central Beijing on February 20, 2011.

Policemen watch a crowd that gathered outside a McDonald's restaurant after internet social networks called for a "Jasmine Revolution" protest in central Beijing on February 20, 2011. (David Gray/Courtesy Reuters)

I was down in Washington, D.C. last Friday to testify before the Economic and Security Review Commission on the roots of social unrest in China, a particularly timely session given everything that has been transpiring in the Middle East and percolating in China.

The gist of my remarks was that social unrest in China was less about any one issue—forced relocation, the environment, or corruption—than about the systemic weakness of the country’s governance structure. There are over 100,000 protests every year in China not because the pollution is terrible (which it is) but rather because there is a lack of transparency, official accountability and the rule of law that make it difficult for public grievances to be effectively addressed.

By looking at the protests as a systemic problem, rather than as an issue-based problem, the relationship between the revolutions cascading through the Middle East and the not-quite flowering Jasmine Revolution in China is not as tenuous as it might first appear.

Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Becquelin, in his piece “Wake Up and Smell the Jasmine,” suggests that the Chinese government is confident in its belief that China is not the next Egypt because it delivers economic goods to the Chinese people. But if economic growth were all that mattered, why would Beijing have to contend with over 100,000 protests every year?

If, in contrast, the system is the problem, then Beijing is addressing merely the symptoms and not the roots of the challenge. Protests will continue and likely only expand as more people enter the middle class with greater expectations of a political voice and greater access to communication through the Internet.

In addition, although the official Chinese line has been to view the downfall of Egypt and Tunisia as a blow to U.S. allies, it is worth remembering that as close as the economic and security ties may have been, both Egypt and Tunisia supported China in its boycott of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to honor Chinese scholar/activist Liu Xiaobo. Politically, Egypt and Tunisia were more about China than the United States.

The Jasmine Revolution in China has yet to flower, but it seems clear that the roots have been planted.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Evan Kornbluh

    Dr. Economy,

    I was thrilled for the chance to hear you speak at the hearing last Friday. I was particularly struck by your assessment that the Chinese government has been uniquely adept at identifying potential “centers” of organization around which dissatisfied citizens gather and stamping them out early. This prevents small, localized centers of unrest in different areas from connecting with one another and forming a broader movement.

    In a panel last year at the Brookings Institute on the role of the Internet in US-China relations, Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis Defense Group Director James Mulvenon similarly argued that the government has exceeded the expectations of many in its ability to adapt to new technologies and use them to monitor and limit internet protests. The scale of the Chinese government’s suppressive efforts, as well as its surprising flexibility, seems to me to differ sharply from conditions in Egypt and Tunisia, where vibrant online dissent communities were allowed to grow unchecked.

    Do you believe, then, that despite all of these additional obstacles to resistance in China, that it’s just a matter of time before the forces of dissent overwhelm the massive security apparatus?

    Evan Kornbluh

  • Posted by bill

    I disagree. China is a long way from the MIddle East, as I argue here:
    Will Unrest In Egypt Strengthen The Chinese Government? | Sinocism

  • Posted by miriam

    I do agree with “Protests will continue and likely only expand as more people enter the middle class with greater expectations of a political voice and greater access to communication through the Internet”.

    The stongest point is the emerging middle-classes in Egypt,Tunisia,Lybia etc. and IT the empowering factor, the latter filling the gap of non-existent “civil society”.

  • Posted by justrecently

    Predictions about China have a history of being wrong – in 1989, there were similar narratives that China was going to liberate itself, soon.

    But there are parallels in how we deal with tyranny. They are buddies so long as they have “business” to offer, and tyrants, once they are being kicked out by their people.

  • Posted by Eduard P.

    This is a very valid opinion – China could end up like the USSR, while it may have economic freedoms, there still is social tension on the scale unseen to a Westerner, like it’s been mentioned in the article tens of thousands of protests go unreported.

    Middle East could be the straw that breaks the back of this unsustainable conglomerate of forces; oil at $200 does all sort of magic around the world…

    Greetings from Lithuania,

    Best Regards :)

  • Posted by Elizabeth Economy

    Thank you for all the additional thoughts. Let me respond simply by saying, as a former student of the Soviet Union, we should never say never. The CCP has certainly proved extremely adept at harrassing, detaining, tracking and imprisoning anyone it deems remotely threatening. The costs of doing so, however, are increasing dramatically. There are reputational damages, legitimacy costs, and the actual pricetag for maintaining such domestic security is now reportedly approaching the number spent on China’s external defense. If this does not indicate a system in need of serious overhaul, you only have to listen to the leaders, themselves, talk about instability. Truth be told, my hope is not that the people overwhelm the public security forces but rather that some post-2012 Chinese leaders realize the gains from political reform will overwhelmingly outweigh any short term pain. I don’t think that that is impossible.

  • Posted by Mark Tully

    Unless I’m mistaken, the Chinese have a long tradition of petitioning their government. There are plenty of protests in western countries and it’s not usually interpreted as a sign of governmental weakness. Couldn’t this be a sign of continued faith that the Chinese government can respond to citizens’ needs?

    It seems to me like China won’t turn into an Egypt-like situation because the middle class can advance materially. Wealth still seems to serve a social purpose in China, young people still believe somewhat that they have something at stake in Chinese society.

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