from Asia Unbound

Why China is not Egypt (or Yemen, or Tunisia, or Bahrain)

February 16, 2011

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Protesters from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions demonstrate outside the Egyptian Consulate in Hong Kong
Protesters from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions demonstrate outside the Egyptian Consulate in Hong Kong February 8, 2011, in response to the "Day of Action for Democracy in Egypt" called by the International Trade Union Confederation. (Bobby Yip/Courtesy Reuters)

Earlier, I posted on China’s reaction to the uprising in Egypt, which was basically to try to shut down any coverage of the protests in the Chinese media at all. Some reporters and commentors have suggested that this is a sign of China’s instability, that it bears some resemblance to the Arab-Muslim states now feeling the heat. Though I wish that were true, it’s probably not. Why?

1. China’s urbanites haven’t turned against the regime

Unlike the educated and secular men and women who thronged to the central squares in Cairo, many Chinese urbanites essentially support, or tolerate, the regime. And why not? The government has been very, very good to them, as Minxin Pei documented in his book China’s Trapped Transition. High growth, perks for professors and urban dwellers, restrictions on rural people’s housing and schools – all of these are reasons why urbanites, in polls, show high appreciation of the current state of affairs.

2. China’s leaders aren’t as out of touch, isolated, and brittle as those in the Middle East

The CCP leadership is not Hosni Mubarak. It is an authoritarian regime, but a collective one, one that does have some response to public opinion – see the 2008 Tibet protests, or China’s crackdowns on infant formula fakers – and uses its collective to make shared decisions that do not rest on the shoulders of one man or woman. The leadership has proven relatively flexible and tenacious, able to adapt to changing international currents, and to co-opt some of the finest political and business talent into the Party.

3. China’s economy is booming

In Tunisia, and then in Egypt, protests erupted after immolations by young men who, though they had undergraduate degrees, were unable to find work in economies that could not keep pace with growing populations. Though Chinese university graduates certainly have a tougher time finding jobs than they did several years ago, the Chinese economy continues to boom, and with appropriate skills, educated young men and women still can find high-paying jobs, particularly if they are willing to move to interior cities that have been prioritized by the central government.

4. Foreign actors don’t have much role to play

Though the U.S. role in Egypt and the French role in Tunisia might be overstated at times, certainly the vast amount of U.S. aid to Cairo and the longstanding military-military ties did mean that many average Egyptians were closely watching President Obama to see how he would respond to the anti-Mubarak demonstrations. The era of Chinese intellectuals and pro-democracy activists looking clearly to the United States for guidance, if that ever existed, is over. (Was the “Goddess of Democracy” sculpture in Tiananmen Square in 1989 really some kind of pro-American stance? I’m not sure.) Any change that happens in China in the near, or far, future, is going to come from domestic events, not from external pressure.