I was down in Washington, D.C. last Friday to testify before the Economic and Security Review Commission on the roots of social unrest in China, a particularly timely session given everything that has been transpiring in the Middle East and percolating in China.
The gist of my remarks was that social unrest in China was less about any one issue—forced relocation, the environment, or corruption—than about the systemic weakness of the country’s governance structure. There are over 100,000 protests every year in China not because the pollution is terrible (which it is) but rather because there is a lack of transparency, official accountability and the rule of law that make it difficult for public grievances to be effectively addressed.
By looking at the protests as a systemic problem, rather than as an issue-based problem, the relationship between the revolutions cascading through the Middle East and the not-quite flowering Jasmine Revolution in China is not as tenuous as it might first appear.
Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Becquelin, in his piece "Wake Up and Smell the Jasmine," suggests that the Chinese government is confident in its belief that China is not the next Egypt because it delivers economic goods to the Chinese people. But if economic growth were all that mattered, why would Beijing have to contend with over 100,000 protests every year?
If, in contrast, the system is the problem, then Beijing is addressing merely the symptoms and not the roots of the challenge. Protests will continue and likely only expand as more people enter the middle class with greater expectations of a political voice and greater access to communication through the Internet.
In addition, although the official Chinese line has been to view the downfall of Egypt and Tunisia as a blow to U.S. allies, it is worth remembering that as close as the economic and security ties may have been, both Egypt and Tunisia supported China in its boycott of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to honor Chinese scholar/activist Liu Xiaobo. Politically, Egypt and Tunisia were more about China than the United States.
The Jasmine Revolution in China has yet to flower, but it seems clear that the roots have been planted.