02/22/2011, 00.00
CHINA – MIDDLE EAST
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Mideast color revolutions and Beijing’s fears

by Willy Lam
The recent revolutions shaking up Arab regimes have scared China’s rulers. Concern about possible unrest at home has led Chinese Communist authorities to promote social reforms for the lower classes but also to crack down on any attempt to show solidarity with Arab demonstrators. Will the winds of change sweeping across Africa and the Middle East skirt the mainland? Here is an analysis by Willy Lam, a journalist with the Jamestown Foundation in Washington.

Washington (AsiaNews/TJF) – The chances are low that an Egyptian-style “color revolution” is about to flare up in China any time soon. Yet it is a reassertion of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration’s seemingly lack of confidence that it has gone to great lengths to minimize the spillover effect that the dramatic events in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen may have on China. Apart from controlling news coverage of Egypt’s “Lotus Revolution,” the authorities are trying to steer the debate toward the unsuitability of the “Western democratic model” for developing countries. Top cadres including Premier Wen Jiabao are pulling out all the stops to convince China’s underclasses that Beijing will be spending more on social-welfare benefits, in part ostensibly to stem popular unrest. Should the CCP leadership fail to address long-festering sores such as the rich-poor gap and citizens’ lack of freedom of expression, however, the possibility of the country’s disadvantaged population emulating feisty Tunisian and Egyptian protestors cannot be ruled out.

Beijing, which observed a seven-day Lunar New Year vacation last week, has not responded to requests from foreign reporters to comment on whether an Egypt-like insurrection would be imminent in China. All that the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said on this topic was that “we hope Egypt will restore social stability and normal order as soon as possible” (FMPRC.gov.cn, January 30; AFP, February 2). Yet, the authorities took resolute steps late last month to restrict media coverage on the color revolutions in North Africa and Middle East – and to bar discussion by Netizens on social-networking and micro-blogging sites. Chinese editors have been told by the CCP Propaganda Department that they can only use news dispatches by the official Xinhua News Agency (Christian Science Monitor, February 1). Moreover, Netizens and bloggers are not allowed to talk about Egypt on the Chinese equivalents of Facebook or Twitter. Egypt-related searches on various micro-blogs, such as Sina.com, Netease.com and Weibo have produced either no results or error messages. This is despite the fact that with the availability of more “firewall-climbing” software, a sizeable proportion of China’s 450 million Netizens has been able to gain access to foreign reports about the color revolutions (Reuters, January 30; The Economist, February 3; France24.com, February 3).

Beijing and Cairo are similar

The Hu Jintao administration has attempted to divert public attention by focusing on the speed and efficiency with which Beijing dispatched chartered flights to send home a thousand-odd Chinese (including tourists from Hong Kong) stranded in various Egyptian cities. More significantly, official commentators have focused on the alleged deficiencies of Western-style democracy. An editorial in the Global Times pointed out that American and European institutions and norms ill suited the people of Africa and the Middle East. “Color revolutions will not bring about real democracy,” said the Times, which is a People’s Daily subsidiary. “Democracy has a strong appeal because of the successful models in the West,” the Times added. “But whether the system is applicable in other countries is in question, as more and more unsuccessful examples arise” (Global Times, January 30; Reuters, January 31).

Other academics and experts have dwelled on the fact that given the quasi-alliance relationship between Egypt and the United States, upheaval in Egypt will only spell trouble for Washington’s interests in the Middle East. For instance, Shanghai-based international relations expert Li Shimo noted that if real elections were to take place in Egypt and neighboring countries, the ballot box could produce Muslim leaders who would not only spurn U.S.-style democracy but also threaten America’s oil supplies. “From the Iranian revolution onward, almost all democratic elections in the Islamic world have resulted in Islamist administrations that are against the West and Israel,” he wrote (Huanqiu.com, February 1; Sina.com, February 1). It is interesting that Beijing also raised objections to Washington’s alleged attempts to support pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran in 2009. The official China Daily pointed out in an editorial at the time that “attempts to push the so-called color revolution [in Iran] toward chaos will prove very dangerous.” “A destabilized Iran is in nobody’s interest if we want to maintain peace and stability in the Middle East, and the world beyond,” it added (China Daily, June 18, 2009; Asia Times, June 20, 2009).

Yet a number of respected Chinese intellectuals have called attention to the fact that irrespective of the element of “outside interference,” there are similarities between China and Egypt regarding the multitudinous grievances of the underclasses. Popular commentator and blogger Sima Nan noted that “China’s social problems are not one whit less than those in Egypt.” Sima indicated that in areas such as cost of living, property prices, high medical and education fees as well as corruption, the “trigger point” for Chinese masses copying the tactics of Egyptian protestors “is not that far away.” Yuan Weishi, a well-regarded historian at Guangzhou’s Zhongshan University, pointed out that if the Chinese economy were to slow down, the country would “very likely see turmoil again with widespread discontent with the government,” “The Chinese public now has strong awareness of their rights and can never return to the old days when they were subject to manipulation and had no rights to voice their criticism,” he added (Wyzxsx.com [Beijing], January 30; South China Morning Post, February 1).

In an apparent attempt to forestall social unrest, the CCP leadership has in the past several weeks, spotlighted the “close-to-the-masses” persona of senior cadres. Premier Wen paid a visit to the State Bureau of Letters and Petitions late last month to talk to disgruntled residents who were trying to lodge complaints against governments of different levels. “Our power is entrusted by the people,” Wen told the petitioners. “We should use our power to seek benefits for the people and we should responsibly tackle the difficulties faced by the people.” It was the first time that a senior official had ever talked to petitioners, who are regularly harassed and even imprisoned by police and state-security personnel. During the Lunar New Year period, Wen and President Hu mingled with the masses during inspection tours to Hebei and Shandong Provinces respectively. Both leaders pledged the government would pay more attention to the people’s livelihood particularly at times of inflation (China News Service, January 25; Xinhua News Agency, February 4).

Aid and repression

Official newspapers have played up substantial boosts in social security expenditures in the government’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011 to 2015). For example, annual increases in unemployment payouts, old-age subsidies and other benefits will by the middle of the decade be pegged to the rate of inflation. In response to widespread gripes about the real-estate bubble, the central government has pledged to build more subvented and low-cost housing in the coming five years. The target for 2011 is 10 million subsidized flats, a rise of 70 percent over last year’s figure (China News Service, January 6; People’s Daily, January 7). On top of the 22.8 percent increase in minimum wages across China last year, different cities have already announced salary hikes of around 15 percent to help workers cope with fast-rising living costs. While the official CPI jumped 4.6 percent last December, most Chinese economists reckon that food prices alone have gone up by at least 10 percent the past year. Partly owing to poor weather conditions nationwide, the government will be hard put to tackle the spiraling prices of rice, wheat, vegetables and meat (AFP, January 21; People’s Daily, January 26).

Much more significant, however, is the fact that in trying to prevent social upheaval, the CCP leadership seems unwilling to go beyond public-relations gestures. Take, for example, Wen’s brief encounter last month with eight petitioners, who complained to the premier about issues such as the illegal confiscation of properties by local authorities. Even the official media has reported that while relevant government cadres had contacted the grievance bearers, the majority of their problems had not been solved. The officials also claimed that the petitioners had not been telling the truth. As Beijing University of Science and Technology Professor Hu Xingdou pointed out, the phenomenon of petitioners itself demonstrated grave institutional problems such as the ineffectiveness of the legal and judicial systems. “The only solution to the issue of petitioners is the independence of the judiciary, so that there would be adequate scrutiny of various levels of governments,” said the famous social critic (Southern Metropolitan News [Guangzhou] February 1; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], February 2; Ming Pao [Hong Kong] January 27).  

According to political scientist Liu Junning, the rise of people power in the Middle East has highlighted the “crisis of authoritarianism” in China. “The authorities must begin deep-seated, systemic changes in the political field,” he said. “Steps such as boosting social-welfare payouts are only superficial, stop-gap measures.” Liu, however, does not see any sign that the CCP leadership is willing to contemplate political changes [1]. He and other observers think that the Hu leadership is bent on beefing up China’s already formidable public-security apparatus so as to crack down on destabilizing and “disharmonious” elements in society.

After neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which shares a border with the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, underwent a color revolution in 2005, President Hu issued instructions to bolster control over the nation’s dissidents and NGOs, especially those which maintain contact with Western organizations (See “Hu’s recent crackdown on political dissent,” China Brief, June 7, 2005). Several thousand dissidents, human-rights lawyers and NGO activists have been detained or harassed since then. Moreover, high-tech spy equipment has been installed throughout the country. For example, 1 million surveillance cameras have been set up in Guangdong Province, and 50,000 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang (The Guardian, January 25; New York Times, August 2, 2010).

In an apparent attempt to persuade the masses not to succumb to the proverbial sugar-coated bullets of the capitalist West, patriotic scholars have issued new warnings against an alleged “Western conspiracy” to undermine China’s rise through means ranging from military containment to spreading democratic ideals. For example, Peking University international affairs scholar Yu Wanli asserted in an article last week entitled “Concocting fears about China is an American strategic lever,” that Washington is using weapons including “its value systems and superior soft power” to discredit and rein in China. Zhou Jimo, a researcher at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges pointed out that “Western countries will pull out all the stops to suppress the Chinese economy” (Huanqiu.com, February 4; Sina.com, January 30). It remains to be seen, however, whether the CCP’s propaganda offensive, in addition to its time-tested carrot-and-stick approach of mixing economic inducements for its citizens with repressive measures can keep the lid on now that the winds of change are even sweeping through the far reaches of Africa and the Middle East.

Notes:  1. Author’s interview with Liu Junning, February 5, 2011

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