What Can China Learn From Unrest in Egypt?
Images of Egyptian security forces cracking down on protestors have provoked strong emotions in China. Last week, during heated fighting, discussion of the violent sweep was at the top of trending-topic lists on microblogs and search engines, while newspaper editorialists, bloggers and commentators offered a range of opinions that converged on one idea: Don’t let this happen in China.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. While some commentators outside the country focused on direct comparisons between China and Egypt, that conversation didn’t have much currency in China, where questions about stability prevailed instead.
“Stability maintenance” has long been a priority of the Communist Party, which spends the equivalent of billions of dollars each year on it. This can be ascribed in part to self-preservation by an unpopular government that faces, by its own account, tens of thousands of “mass incidents” -- riots, protests and other incidents of unrest -- each year, many of which are small and pose little threat to anyone but local officials.
Yet self-preservation isn’t the only explanation. China’s modern history until the late 1970s was marked by war, revolution, famine, the Cultural Revolution and other tragedies that impressed upon the ruling party and its subjects an appreciation for stability, even at the cost of personal and political freedom. Likewise, the material gains enjoyed by China’s middle class are substantial enough that many would probably think twice before rushing to the barricades at the risk of diminishing their ever-rising home values.
Take Kai-Fu Lee, the former president of Google China and a prominent liberal, reformist voice on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging service; he’s certainly nobody’s patsy, especially the Communist Party’s. On Sunday, discussing an interview he did with a Chinese magazine, he tweeted his modest, personal expectations for Chinese political reform -- which he didn’t explicitly connect to Egypt, although many people who left comments did. Lee wrote: “Like most people, I expect peaceful reform and progress, and I am not willing to see turbulence.” If competent individuals can be entrusted to manage the reform, and if addressing corruption and environmental degradation are at the top of the agenda, Lee then counsels “patience.”
For those who think of China’s political-reform movement in terms akin to the Tiananmen Square protestors of 1989 and Egypt’s current demonstrators, patience may seem to equal cowardice. But Lee’s desire for a peaceful evolution in China is mainstream and in line with the long-time rhetoric (if not the intentions) of China’s rulers. Indeed, over the last days of Egyptian upheaval, most of the party-authorized voices commenting on the events have emphasized -- almost always implicitly -- the lessons that China might learn from such events.
On Friday, Mao Xiaogang, a columnist at the centrist, Communist Party-owned Beijing Times newspaper, wrote a piece ostensibly about Egypt. And yet seemingly tucked within it was his espousal of the Communist Party’s longtime justification for its emphasis on stability preservation: sustained economic growth. “Without social stability it’s impossible for a country to develop its economy and its people to live in peace and contentment,” he wrote. “The words ‘Maintaining stability is a top priority’ aren’t empty. The status quo in Egypt makes people realize the value of stability.”
People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, offered its own stability-favoring argument in a Monday editorial with the headline “Stability, the Correct Choice for Egypt.” The piece opines in terms understandable to any Chinese familiar with the party’s rhetoric over the decades: “Mubarak’s fall and the subsequent turmoil are a reminder that a falling boulder accelerates and anything can happen in a country that loses order.”
The problem is that most Chinese have a different definition of what constitutes “losing order” than those who have assigned themselves the job of maintaining stability. What seems a generally harmless protest to some may from the Communist Party’s perspective look like a boulder starting to roll.
To China’s online masses, there’s a fairly broad consensus on what’s not a threat: namely, the kinds of peaceful protests that occasionally happen in Taiwan, where protest is tolerated. In early August, a massive Taiwanese protest over a young conscript’s death during his military service caught the attention of Chinese microbloggers, who sent it to the top of trending-topic lists through a combination of sympathy for the cause and genuine irritation that their Taiwanese compatriots can protest in large numbers, and they can’t. When news broke over the weekend that Taiwanese were protesting housing demolitions and development projects by the government -- a common problem in China -- approving messages again proliferated (though, in this case, the topic didn’t trend). On Monday, one cheeky Weibo user posted an image of the Egyptian protests and a message suggesting that the protests in Taipei “deserve our study.”
Such protests would not be allowed in mainland China, despite the fact that news of them is widely disseminated (perhaps out of a naive belief by China’s propagandists that Taiwanese protests undermine the case for Taiwanese democracy). This brings up a question uncomfortable to both the rulers and the ruled: Why can the Taiwanese be trusted to protest -- and maintain their stability -- and we can’t?
On Tuesday, Ding Long, an associate professor at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, gave an answer in People’s Daily. He refers to young democracies as “preemies,” suggesting that they were born before they’d developed socially and economically. Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries are mentioned. China isn’t, but it certainly seems to lurk behind the shadows: “Democratization requires a ‘preparation period.’ Developing countries should focus on economic development at that stage, cultivating economic strength and social organizations in favor of democracy and civil society that are essential for democracy to take root.”
As agitprop designed to please a stability-conscious Communist Party, this is a refined opinion. As propaganda directed at a stability-conscious Chinese public, the sentiments -- and the use of “preemie,” in particular -- may be seen as condescending. That’s a wide gap, but for now it’s pretty certain that China will not become the next Egypt anytime soon.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at email@example.com