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China Isn’t Egypt

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
March 5, 2011

A man (R) is arrested by police and taken to a police vehicle after calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" protest, organized through the internet, in front of the Peace Cinema in downtown Shanghai February 27, 2011. (Carlos Barria/Courtesy Reuters).

So many articles about whether and how China is “like” the Middle East … But I really wish we wouldn’t compare China and, say, Egypt. They are very different indeed:

– Egypt has had organized opposition in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood and other political and social groups.  China does not.

– At least some Arab countries have a mobilized civil society in the form of mosques, charities, Islamic universities, social groups, and so on. China, in the main, does not.

– In many Arab countries, mid- and low-ranked military and security elites may well support the opposition.  This is not the case in China. Indeed, where the military in Egypt and Tunisia ultimately turned on their presidents, the People’s Liberation Army will not challenge the Chinese Communist Party under present circumstances, nor will the paramilitary and police forces on which Beijing would largely rely.

– Meanwhile, China has lifted living standards through decades of strong economic performance. Most of the relevant Arab governments have not.

It’s not that China isn’t brittle.  It’s just that, over the longer term, prospective sources of instability would, to my mind, reflect distinctly Chinese circumstances only.

China is brittle.  It is a country ruled by a party brought to power, in large part, by peasants but cannot suppress rural protest.  It is a country with one umbrella labor federation but faces sporadic and unpredictable strikes.  Even China’s elite—white collar bankers, who have been among the biggest winners from the country’s growth explosion—have been arrested.  Some, for example, were arrested last year for agitating in central Beijing.

But China’s leaders have been effective at blunting the political effects of this discontent through a combination of carrots and sticks.  They have co-opted some demands of the discontented, not least by hiking wages and funding social housing.  Separately, they have built paramilitary and police capabilities and have been prepared, since the 1989 Tiananmen events, to react (or overreact) to the slightest twitch that smells of an underlying challenge to the regime.

The challenges to China’s political and social stability are real but of a decidedly longer term nature.  And the signposts of crisis would probably involve a cascade of short, sharp challenges to the regime—and a fracturing of the governing elite—not, for example, a handful of anonymous individuals trying to organize a “Jasmine” gathering on the corner of Wangfujing Street in Beijing.

China’s government, of course, aims to forestall all this.  It will try to address these challenges through many of the policies at the heart of the 12th Five Year Plan.   It aims, for example, to shift income from producers to households, to adopt new social welfare schemes, to hike wages, and to root out the most embarrassingly egregious examples of state and Party corruption.

The state is very unlikely to succeed in all of these efforts.  But while its failures will raise the risks to China, those risks cannot be measured on an “Egyptian” timetable.

Instead, I wish we would connect events in the Middle East to China in more proximate ways.  

For one, inflationary concern in China’s governing elite will surely be aggravated by developments in international energy markets.  

For another, the threat to Chinese nationals in Libya has sparked foreign policy debates in Beijing about how to protect Chinese workers abroad. This reinforces a debate that gathered steam after the murder of Chinese engineers in Pakistan in 2006. And, in time, China’s heightened global commercial profile could (gradually) suck Beijing into the domestic politics of third countries. China will increasingly debate whether and how to develop and deploy forces abroad for non-combatant evacuation operations. 

But domestically, the most important near term effect may simply be to boost the role of the security services and, especially, to reinforce Beijing’s abiding suspicion of social media and the Internet. The regime will likely become even more assertive on Internet policy, inching China closer to a walled-off web.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Loren Fauchier

    Spot on with this analysis of factors not favoring an organized uprising against the CCP. Plus the centralized government has found ways to control social media. China’s plan to address/improve the standard of living & address energy needs are so far beyond what Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have discussed, let alone implemented. This alone cannot beg off the wealth gap, corruption, and state abuse of citizens, but it will certainly put it off in a country w/out major religious divisions.

  • Posted by Marisa

    What I am seeing is that the Chinese people, wheverever they may be in the world, are the property of China, and whatever happens in China is China’s own business, even if it involves an international company. China will soon develop their own internet system and use Chinese characters, further divorcing itself from the wider world. China’s leaders care about one thing – hanging on to power so that they never have to face the consequences for all their years of torturing their own people. The only reason they raise living standards is not because they are nice people – it is just easier to hand on to power. What the Chinese leaders really want more than anything is rule the world, especially to have the US serve them. Their strategy is to make the US indebted to them (that’s done), force the US into bankrupcy by outspending them militarily at some point (getting close), and then take over the US militarily (a few decades out). It is that simple – China expects to call all the shots at some point, and they have a well developed strategy to do just that.

  • Posted by RousseauChen

    The matter of fact is that for people who truly understand China, the Chinese on the mainland are fed up with any kind of revolution. There had been too many of them since the Opium War and under Mao. The memory of devastation caused by these revolutions are bitter to the population. The public sentiment is for the reform, or evolution, which is the major theme of China over the past 30 years.
    You’re right, there are many problems and there are many discontents. But look at the United States, you can see the discontent among the public too, not to mention the Tea Party who also want to unseat Obama.
    So revolution is not appealing to the Chinese any more, especially the benefits of economic reform in the last 30 years is tangible.
    The problem is that the Party needs to act more proactively to address the many problems — the corruption, environmental pollution and income gap etc. That could be solved (hopefully) through mounting pressure from the public, but not necessarily through revolution.
    Americans are “naive” in the sense that it should support any kind of revolution, despite the fact that those who launched the revolution may be worse than the current regime. That may well be the case in the Middle East and North Africa.
    Be careful of what you wish for.
    On the other hand, what is the good for the US if China has a revolution. It will inflict huge damages to the US economy which is so interdependent to the Chinese economy. If economy is bad, Americans won’t be happy and Obama won’t be re-elected.

  • Posted by Frank Lupotelli

    You think China-Egypt is a stretch??? The domestic South Korean press comparisons between Egypt and North Korea make me feel nauseous!

  • Posted by RousseauChen

    Just hope those who has never been to China or who has not studied China seriously would not make comments because it is irresponsible. The fact that many people in the US congress, who don’t have a passport, like to comment on world affairs is a joke of democracy.
    Please set a good example and make yourself relevant.

  • Posted by Aliya

    In my opinion, the biggest difference between Chinese and Egyptian might be that the former believe nothing but the latter have faith no matter it is Islam or Catholicism.
    China indeed has its traditional philosophy and conception, like Confucianism however it plays more important role in international propaganda than to sow belief in the hearts of Confucians’ offspring. Most modern Chinese, if insistently to say they believe something, that might be money.
    As the increasingly widening rich-poor gap, it is such weird that considerable Chinese don’t think it is unfair but instead for more and more Chinese graduates, the best job is to be the national officials. When you hang on to power, you will be the one in the rich team, which is not secret in China.
    Pragmatism prevails over faith here and that’s why even there is “jasmine twitch” it can not mobilize more Chinese. No wonder that some Chinese themselves recognize they are not as united as Egyptian. Under such circumstances, before the potential protestor leave his home, his plan might be leaked by his relatives, friends or neighbours whom have been bought off or threatened.

  • Posted by Stephen Real

    The soft power tactics of the Chinese Jasmine revolutionaries are the epitome of asymmetrical warfare.
    Now that these cats definitely know they have the Chinese authorities by their balls. All they have to do is pull, and oh boy do they get a reaction. This just lends one to think that this Chinese Jasmine revolution is just in beginning phase of operations.

    It’s very reminiscent of how “Che” Guevara use to wind up the Batista forces by firing one bullet at an outpost, they would go nuts, and shoot back with overwhelming force all night long, while Che was already back in his bed sleeping. (Che, in my opinion, was a homicidal maniac, but you get the point.)

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