Ongoing uprisings in Arab countries have led policymakers, journalists and investors to speculate about China’s potential for instability. They try to identify indicators for the country’s elusive future and reach conclusions that waver between two extremes. Some observers emphasise the regime’s vulnerability, positing that social and political movements in Arab countries will spark unrest among Chinese youth. Others say that the Communist Party has little reason to worry about a similar scenario, and that Beijing will continue to pose a threat to the “free world” in the coming future.
Domestically, there has been no less contradiction among the Chinese public. University graduates who savagely criticise the Communist Party on the Internet make every endeavor to become party bureaucrats in the real world. Their parents – some of whom rallied around youth leaders in 1989 calling for democratisation and political freedom – acknowledge the need for reform but grudge risking their economic welfare on fundamental change. Angry citizens bitterly resent corrupt officials accumulating personal wealth and political power, but ask why ordinary people cannot get rich through similar means with impunity.
While not dumbfounded by the downfall of authoritarian rulers elsewhere, the Chinese leadership is nonetheless alarmed by rapid changes in Arab countries. Their anxiety is intensified by the growing discontent and resistance from elites both inside and outside the party. Nevertheless, it is an exaggeration to say that the regime is in imminent danger of collapse. Given the established governing structure and China’s prevailing political culture, an Arab-style uprising is unlikely to happen in the short run. The way forward depends on the ability of the Chinese leadership to build consensus and instigate a new round of political and economic reform. If the regime learns insightful lessons from it, the Arab Spring can be a catalyst for China to establish a more justified distribution of power and wealth. But if officials refuse to take a step forward, they are unlikely to find a way to mitigate long-term risks.
To begin with, the current political system in China is very different to those in Arab countries, whether it be a relatively open Jordan and pre-revolution Egypt or a more totalitarian Syria and Libya. The former imitate European countries in terms of state-building, advocating legal and bureaucratic systems under which freedom of speech, social diversity and opposition movements are tolerated – if not encouraged – by the executive authority. Political parties are allowed to participate in parliamentary elections, but only one party plays a substantial role in the legislature.
Contemporary politics in China draws less inspiration from the west than from its own eccentric dynastic history. Just like its predecessors, the Communist Party of China (CPC) founded a 'red dynasty' in 1949 after years of violent struggle. Since then, it not only monopolises government process but is the ultimate source of power in Chinese society. Under a dual administrative system, CPC chiefs are able to determine personnel changes and the direction of policy within each level of government. A similar structure applies to the People’s Congress and Political Consultative Conference – the upper and lower houses of China’s legislature – and to state-owned enterprises, which control vital areas of the economy. Last but not least, the CPC commands its military arm, the People’s Liberation Army. Since the party’s founding in 1921, its leadership have quashed all potential sources of opposition and suppressed rival factions that threatened party unity.
Western commentators criticise the CPC for monopolising civil society and blurring the line between party and state. Some critics therefore compare the Chinese regime to the second type of Arab countries. Yet China’s ruling party also differs obviously from the Baath parties in Syria or Iraq. The ruling power within those totalitarian Arab countries is confined to a clique of closed autocrats – state has become a private estate of the ruling families. To a certain extent, the party leadership in China involves more constraints and incentives. State affairs are determined by the votes of nine members within the Standing Committee. The nine leaders at the top aim to retain a careful and harmonious balance in representing the diversified interests of China’s ruling elites, yet competition among them is often zero-sum. Checks and balances exist between current power-holders and senior mentors, and between Beijing and provincial chiefs.
Additionally, the past three decades have seen a deliberate retreat of the party from society, with the regime tolerating a limited but progressive loosening of control over the public sphere. Whereas organised resistance is still forbidden, the party nevertheless chooses not to enforce its will at all times. The decision-making process is slowly opening up, as party leaders consult a growing number of actors outside the ruling circle and become more receptive to the ideas of some pressure groups.
Lastly, the CPC – in contrast to its Arab counterparts – rules with renewed vigour, since it can attract university graduates and outstanding scholars with assorted knowledge backgrounds. It was historically characteristic of Chinese meritocracy that students with good grades were selected to administer the country. Joining the ruling party provides a direct and instant way for college graduates to ensure material wellbeing and climb up the social ladder. The same goes for intellectuals, and this partly explains why they have historically failed to constitute a distinct institution against unfettered executive power. A lack of resistance to the lure of power distinguishes intellectual-bureaucrats in China from the scholarly class in the west and the Arab world, and significantly limits their capacity to counterbalance the party leadership.
A centralised governing structure coupled with a long tradition of respecting and worshipping authority ensures the solidity of party rule. In a society that has just recovered from a century of foreign invasion, political chaos and economic hardship, it is only natural for Chinese to cherish peace, stability and predictability. But this prevailing sentiment also makes the public reluctant to take risks, and may ultimately render China’s political and economic development stagnant.
China has seen in recent years a rise of social unrest, yet these demonstrations are not necessarily a push for political reform. While petitioners and dissidents hold protest rallies every day in defiance of unaccountable officials, few of them question the necessity of upholding a strong executive authority. In other words, activists tend to challenge disgraceful local chiefs who abuse power rather than casting doubt on power itself. Even some of the most ardent reformers in China do not want to abandon the CPC in carrying out reforms.
This attitude is not shared among Arab citizens, who generally believe that political power has to be supervised by the people and constrained by Islamic principles of government. In this sense, the Arab Spring was more than a western-style democratic uprising, since it revealed to the world a unique revolutionary ideology of Islam: when corrupt leaders no longer rule according to God’s law, disobedience becomes not a right of Muslims but a duty. For similar reasons, long before the first uprising took place in December 2010, moderate and radical Islamic groups provided organised channels in almost every Arab country to challenge the existing power system. By catering to the needs of the silent and poor majority, the Islamists were able to compete with and finally depose once formidable leaders.
Notably, there is an absence of organised opposition in China. This is above all due to the ruling party’s monopoly on political organisation, which makes it very difficult for any opposition to mobilise against the regime. But that is not the only source of the problem. Another reason is the broader public’s distrust of self-righteous political activists, since – unlike their Islamic counterparts in Arab countries – they have not built up social and political capital within Chinese society.
The Tiananmen protests of 1989 are a case in point. After the crackdown, demonstrators and citizens felt betrayed by student leaders who pursued personal interest through inciting the masses to fight the military. While still considering the CPC repellent, many protesters conceded that they were themselves too amenable to the sensational ideas of others, and that their quality of life would in the end have been worse had student leaders managed to force regime change. In the 1990s, Tiananmen was gradually forgotten by a wider public fascinated by economic gain. The young generation even justified the crackdown, arguing that the reassertion of political order paved the way for economic prosperity. Simply put, broad segments of Chinese society take personal welfare much more seriously than political doctrine. For their part, democracy is consequential but not an end in itself. If pro-democracy dissidents cannot articulate their political ideals in ways that connect to the priorities of the average Chinese – safety, growth and employment – then the masses are inclined to reject them.
So what does civil resistance in Arab countries mean for the Chinese? Getting a precise picture is difficult without public opinion surveys. But it is certain that the overturn of authoritarian Arab leaders has won some applause from the public, especially those who are indignant at the party’s political repression and media censorship. Nevertheless, many also contend that pushing for a few leaders’ ouster cannot alone help the situation in Arab countries. They deem it overly credulous when protesters – although well-intentioned – follow rhetorical revolutionary slogans which divert people’s attention away from real and more pressing issues such as poverty reduction and unemployment.
To be sure, the Chinese public is much less knowledgeable about the Arab world than citizens from the west. Many college students have no idea Egypt is a country dominated by Muslims, let alone the role played by Islamic parties during the protests. A typical view in China is that the so-called Arab democratic wave is in essence nothing more than a new round of bloody power struggle. As several countries are still in persistent chaos over a year after the uprising, some feel that the Arabs have over-idealised the revolution.
This is not a startling response, given that the broader public in China is uncomfortable with the very concept of revolution. The first thirty years of the People’s Republic was characterised by a bewildering range of mass movements, during which the country became politically paralysed and economically bankrupt. This bitter experience rendered the Chinese disillusioned with political propaganda and forced them to come to terms with reality. Since reform and opening up in 1978, a market economy has been restored and a pragmatic logic of putting economic growth before ideological debate can be seen in almost every corner of the country. Revolution is seen as old-fashioned, treacherous, and above all harmful to social advance.
When Chinese observers see no improvements in the Arab countries that have rebelled, but rather a deteriorating security and economic situation, they are inclined to compare the Arab Spring to the disintegration of Soviet Russia and treat it as a negative model for China to learn from. Recent uprisings in the Arab world may also add to the public’s fear of social chaos and economic degradation, providing an excuse for the Chinese leadership to evade concrete political reform.
However, whereas economic performance has consolidated the CPC’s rule over the past three decades, it could also put the party in imminent danger if a majority of the population believe the existing political system hinders their economic well-being. Over the years, the party leadership has been affected by widespread discontentment caused by the unbalanced distribution of wealth – a pressure much more difficult to resist than criticism from petitioners and activists. A growing wealth gap coupled with endemic corruption outrages many, because powerful elites can always disdain the rules and misuse state resources for private gain. This tension is particularly alarming as the CPC becomes less capable to mandate and monitor China’s state-owned enterprises, which, relying on a combination of political and economic privileges, expand into various private sectors and grab the lion’s share of the profits. As a result, small and privately owned enterprises are going bankrupt without restitution. And it is now generally acknowledged that ordinary people’s living standards have not improved abreast with the rise of national power.
The Chinese leadership is by no means immune to the wave of civil resistance around the world. For party officials, espousing economic equity, political justice and human dignity is the only meaningful prospect for soothing escalating social antipathy and maintaining power. The dissolution of the Soviet Union twenty years ago impeded this reform process. Since then, Party leaders are averse to controversial liberalisation and fear being labelled “China’s Gorbachev” – meaning someone who brings destruction to the country.
The Arab Spring rang the alarm bells again for Beijing. In Chinese, the word “spring” rekindles hope and passion. It also serves as a figurative expression of the progressive reform and opening up of the 1980s. A second round of steady reform is eagerly awaited by a country still in fragile stability.