Hearing Egyptian echoes, China's autocrats cling to the hope that they are different.
THE speed with which popular protest swept aside long-lasting authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and then Egypt was enough to unnerve autocrats everywhere. In Asia they have watched the tide of heightened democratic aspiration wash across the Middle East and wondered how far it would go. Even in China, the government, ostensibly so confident of the correctness of the path it has chosen, has been wary of the memories events in Cairo might evoke, and of the hopes it might rekindle.
The most complete Asian despotisms—Myanmar and North Korea—may feel immune to people power. They can rely on their isolation, and on the sheer ruthlessness of their repression. In Central Asian dictatorships, closer in geography, culture and religion to the Middle East, the resonance of the recent revolutions may yet be louder. But it is in China that domestic parallels with recent events, above all in Cairo, are on most people’s minds.
They are also of the greatest global consequence, not just because of China’s own growing importance, but because its rise has led to talk of a “Beijing consensus” in which rapid economic growth matters more than freedom. In 1989, after the Beijing massacre, as communist dominoes began to topple in eastern Europe, China seemed the outlier, bucking an historical trend that would catch up with it one day. Its subsequent success has made that trend—towards greater freedom and democracy—seem less inevitable, and, for some, less desirable. Even Western commentators have conceded that China’s system delivers the goods. Chinese officials talk of the unsuitability for their country of “Western-style” democracy. This ignores the Western, Leninist origins of the Communist Party’s organisation, and glosses over the crucial “Western” element missing in China—the ability to get rid of unpopular governments without a revolution. That is why revolutions elsewhere are bound to be of compelling interest.
Recollections of the Tiananmen protests were one reason China’s censors at first worked so assiduously to curtail discussion of the unrest in Egypt. The script was so familiar to those who had been in Beijing in 1989: the huge demonstrations; the mood of elated mass solidarity and rediscovered patriotism; the camping-out in the capital’s main square; the slogans against corruption and arbitrary rule; the belief that the army had sided with the people against their rulers; even the appearance of plain-clothes thugs in support of the regime. This time, however, the story had a happy ending, or at least a climactic, optimistic victory.
The Chinese press has indeed covered Hosni Mubarak’s downfall prominently, while noting, in the words of one newspaper, that “Egypt has won a battle, but not the war”. “Any political changes will be meaningless”, argued China Daily, “if the country falls prey to chaos in the end.” Others, however, have drawn a different conclusion from the events that led to a revolution. An editorial on the website of Caixin, a media group, began: “Autocracy manufactures turbulence; democracy brews peace.”
China’s own autocrats may feel, however, that for at least three reasons they can shrug off comparisons with Egypt and Tunisia. First is China’s record of three decades of stunning economic growth. A survey by the Pew Research Centre last year suggested 87% of Chinese were satisfied with “the way things were going” in their country. Second, even if they were not, no obvious hate figure exists to blame: China’s is a dictatorship of a party, not an individual. No long-serving despot is clinging tenaciously to power. In 2002 the Communist Party had its first-ever orderly leadership transition, and has promised another for 2012.
Third is the efficiency of its extensive internal-security apparatus and armed forces, which are subordinate to the Communist Party. But who knows how the security forces would respond if asked to suppress another mass uprising? They were ready to shoot protesters to quell unrest among ethnic Uighurs in Urumqi in Xinjiang in 2009. But even in 1989 the army did not prove wholly reliable—at least one general disobeyed orders to join the advance into Beijing.
A truly confident Communist Party would not have devoted so much effort to patrolling the internet to prevent surfers drawing parallels at home with events overseas. Always twitchy at any hint of instability, it has plenty of reasons to fret. Inflation, which raged in the late 1980s before the Tiananmen protests, is picking up again. The middle classes, often the locomotive of political change, are growing fast. Widespread graduate unemployment among their young is gnawing away at the hopes of those who should be the most optimistic about China’s future. And every year sees tens of thousands of protests, many over high-handed land grabs by local authorities.
The latest people-power revolts pose two particular difficulties for China’s ideologues. First, they cannot be blamed on the usual suspects, external “black hands”—typically American. Rather, they have been in part anti-American rebellions. As in the Philippines in 1986, South Korea in 1987 and Indonesia in 1998, dictators once cosseted by America have been toppled.
Second, the revolts have lacked both clear ideological aims and coherent organising parties. China’s secret police are good at nipping political movements in the bud. But they missed the rise of the Falun Gong sect as a nationwide anti-government force. And despite their firewalls and armies of “harmonising” censors they might struggle to contain a microblog, text-message or social-network revolution. Their efforts to filter news from the Middle East were only partially successful. That may be why they find the news is so unsettling—because the Chinese people might see it not as a recollection of a nightmarish past, but as a vision of a hopeful future.