Looking for Tahrir in Tian'anmen
by Aaron Gans
Sometimes analogies don’t work. The rising tide of democratic revolutions and popular reawakening throughout the Middle East has led many China watchers to consider just how far this might go. Some predict the end of autocracy and hereditary rule in Muslim-dominated states. Others go further, expecting oppressive states in the Far East to be swamped by the coming storm. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that China will be next. China’s leaders have showed some signs of insecurity, blocking online references to Egypt, but, in its case, the rising democratic tide will not lift all boats.
At first blush, the similarities between Egypt and China are striking. Both nations have seen unprecedented economic expansion in recent years. Likewise, the results of this expansion – the gain in fortunes for the few but not the many – are evident in both states. Both nations also share a trend of an expanding educated class and the bottleneck of recent graduates finding few or poor jobs. The laboring classes in Egypt, long in crisis, have a growing similarity to China where recent unsuppressed wage protests reveal a structural problem. Corruption, too, is rampant in both China and Egypt with an entrenched ruling class and one-party rule. Lastly, both nations have high levels of media censorship. If one were merely to look only at the similarities of the problems that face both nations, the conclusion that China is next would be an easy one to draw.
Yet the differences are determinative in China’s case.
China is simply better at running its form of state than was Egypt. One essential difference is that for the vast majority of Chinese citizens, the system works. In today’s China, the Communist Party remains the single most viable path to success and to prosperity. Lifting uncounted millions out of poverty, developing the national infrastructure and connecting even the most remote of populations to television, cellular and computing networks has won the Party consistent popular support. Rapidly expanding wealth disparities, unmet expectations by some in the rising middle class and the closed nature of one party rule notwithstanding, many people are happy with their lot and, throughout China, most are optimistic about the future. Egypt simply has not met its people’s needs.
The Communist Party has succeeded in inextricably linking Chinese patriotism to the Party. Any move against the communist party would, for the vast majority of Chinese, be seen as an attack on the Chinese people. While many citizens of China are aware of the failings of the Party, they attribute them to a few high-level operatives and remain loyal to the system as a whole.
More significantly perhaps for the Egypt analogy is that there is no viable alternative in China. As a result of social controls no alternative force has existed in China for over 50 years. And without a larger-scale breakdown in efficacy, the Party remains the undisputed and unchallenged strongest force.
China, like Iran, uses social controls such as its internet censorship to great effect, silencing dissent well before it has the power to create a popular movement. This begins with infrastructure -- virtual social networks like Facebook and Twitter are either banned or so closely monitored in China that one can become blacklisted with a mere keystroke. Yet it allows some protests and it targets some corrupt officials for punishment to keep pressures from building up. With controls this efficient and pervasive, China is unlikely to fail in the near term.
Undoubtedly, the events in Egypt caused anxiety for some ministries in Beijing. Such an occurrence could not fail to register at the top of the Chinese hierarchy and cause some soul-searching. China’s problems are great and growing ever-greater. Though similarities between the nations are striking; the comparison is not, yet, apt. If the events emanating from Tunisia and Egypt which still reverberate around the world have taught us anything it is that change can come quickly and unexpectedly. I do not mean to suggest that China is unstoppable or impervious to failure. It isn’t. However, China’s essential differences from Egypt are such that China’s iron-clad stability is better designed to stand the test of events.