China and the Egyptian rising

The Arab democratic awakening makes China’s communist leaders nervous. But are they right to be worried, ask Kerry Brown & Cassidy Hazelbaker.

The phenomenon of massive demonstrations uniting a huge public around the aspiration to change a country’s leadership and renovate the governing system is at the centre of the remarkable uprisings in much of the Arab world in the first months of 2011. The successful overthrow of presidents in Tunisia and Egypt are their early fruits, but the process of democratic change is clearly unfinished and has at least the potential to go far wider.

Even a cursory knowledge of modern Chinese history suggests that the gathering of thousands of students in Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing in May-June 1989 has some parallels with the Arab revolts.

There are also many differences, not least that the Tiananmen movement was eventually crushed by state violence (though the armed assault on sleeping protesters in Bahrain, the shooting of others in Yemen, and the strife in Libya are important ingredients of the larger picture).

What makes the possible linkage between China and Egypt (the biggest and most momentous of the middle-east events) more intriguing is that the information-control operatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seem to be encouraging it even as they attempt to dismiss it out of hand.

The Egyptian protests began on 25 January 2011. From that moment, news and searches about Egypt and its then president Hosni Mubarak on the Chinese internet were severely restricted (as they had been in regard to the Tunisian turmoil that was sparked on 17 December 2010).

What information there has been about the historic events in Cairo, Alexandria, and other Arab cities (and most recently in Libya) is largely confined to the evacuation of Chinese tourists or workers. The protests and their causes - dire living conditions, frustration at unemployment, anger at corrupt and repressive governments - have been ignored or skated over in official media.

This Chinese reaction raises the closely linked questions of whether and any comparison can be made between the Arab mobilisations (in particular those in Egypt) and the situation in China; and why the Chinese government appears so fearful of a possible “contagion” (see Isabel Hilton, "China crackdown: A tweak of the tiger's tail", Guardian, 26 February 2011).

The spectre of comparison

China and Egypt, at least on the surface, share a number of characteristics. Each has been long ruled by an autocratic system, far from anything near a functioning democracy; each is marked by extreme inequality, with a core of very wealthy people surrounded by widespread poverty; each society has a major problem of corruption; and each depends on rapid economic growth to provide jobs and contain discontent.

But the differences are equally stark. China’s economy has rapidly expanded over the three decades of “reform”, with GDP growth averaging around 10% per year even during the west’s major post-2007 financial crisis. Egypt’s economy has also grown substantially in the 2000s, though its peak of 5% annual growth is not enough to keep pace with a rising population and its accompanying needs; even the official unemployment rate is around 10%, and  affects many graduates.

China is the world’s second largest economy, the world’s largest exporter, and has received receives $570 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI). Egypt is the twenty-seventh largest (with an economy of $500 billion, roughly equal to Slovenia and Azerbaijan), and receives $70 billion in FDI.

There are also overlaps and contrasts in the nature of protest and opposition in both countries. Egypt’s movement of 2011 directed its energies at one very specific objective - the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. In 1989, the students assembling in Tiananmen Square pointed their fingers less at the then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping than at a system which (they said) fostered corruption.

Egypt’s former ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), has tolerated the existence of opposition parties (though surrounding them with restrictions and harassment); in China, any impulse to formalise opposition is ruthlessly crushed. True, social protests in China are common, around 90,000 incidents a year according to one estimate, reflecting a high level of social discontent. Yet the Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight grip on its citizens to prevent any manifestation of the kind of massive, organised unrest that felled Mubarak (see David Pilling, "What could bring down China's rulers?", Financial Times, 23 February 2011).

The degree of dissimilarity between the two systems and societies notwithstanding, Beijing evidently is nervous about the possibility that the Arab democratic virus will infect China. This anxiety is part of a consistent pattern. The “colour revolutions” that swept through several states of the former Soviet bloc (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan) in the early-mid 2000s made Beijing think hard about whether China could be vulnerable to a similar process, with state-controlled think-tanks being commissioned to report on why the popular insurgencies had occurred and how they could be avoided.

The problem of violence

The most worrying element of the Egyptian events for Beijing is their combination of speed and unexpectedness. An unforeseen upsurge of mass protest led in only eighteen days to the ousting (and rapid discrediting) of a commanding president who had ruled for thirty years. More widely, even in early December 2010, no one predicted that exactly two months later peaceful popular action would drive from power two of the Arab world’s longest-serving leaders.

The CCP knows that a series of small incidents can soon escalate. After all, it is this very party that made famous the slogan: “a single spark can start a prairie fire”. The lesson it draws is that the key to retaining power is eternal vigilance. In practice, now, that means two things.

First, the party will be taking a rigorous look at whether the Egyptian scenario - especially the space given there for individual voices to cry out, merge, gather, organise, and make demands - is conceivable in China, and how it can be averted.

Second, the party will be scrutinising the role of state-led violence in the control of protesters. The decisive factor in Cairo was the refusal of the army to side with Hosni Mubarak against the people. But this restraint, however crucial, was perhaps motivated as much by cold calculation as by humanitarian concern: that in an age of greater openness and access to information, no regime can long survive if it massacres its own people to stay in power.

In 1989, China was still led by people who had fought in the bitter Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45. They had real combat experience. Deng Xiaoping himself was known as a ruthless military commander who sacrificed huge numbers of lives to achieve battlefield victory. To him, the use of tanks against civilians in 1989 was not a problem.

More than two decades later, and even further from China’s last experience of major conflict (the country’s last significant military engagement was in February-March 1979, against Vietnam), it is critical to ask how much violence the current generation of leaders would be able to use in an emergency. Would the Communist Party’s higher echelons really be able to deploy troops in the manner of 1989?

Egypt has shown China’s political elite that even a well-funded, well-managed, and well-connected army can disobey its political masters when it is ordered to turn fire on its own people. This is not a principle the CCP will want to test in practice. The likelihood must be that Beijing will continue the endless campaign of low-level repression and containment of social discontent - until the day when things get out of control.  

About the authors

Cassidy Hazelbaker is a graduate of the American University of Paris, specialising in middle-east affairs

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Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House. He is the author of Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007), The Rise of the Dragon: Inward and Outward Investment in China in the Reform Period 1978-2007 (Woodhead, 2008) and Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (Anthem Press, 2009). His website is here

Cassidy Hazelbaker is a graduate of the American University of Paris, specialising in middle-east affairs