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Egypt protests could be a warning for China

Pallavi Aiyar 

The alliterative attraction of the spate of comparisons that the developments of the last few weeks in have spawned is understandable. In Tahrir as in Tiananmen in 1989, the country’s youth stormed the landmark national square voicing opposition to an authoritarian government.

The equation has been framed in several ways. The question of whether Tahrir would ultimately turn into a Tiananmen-style massacre with the government directing tanks at its own people has mercifully been answered in the negative.

The other concern, or hope – depending on who is raising it – has to do with whether Tahrir could inspire another Tiananmen-style movement in China today. If the Chinese masses are presumed to be an oppressed lot, defenseless in the face of an all-powerful and corrupt dictatorship that denies them basic freedoms and human rights, this would be a valid and pressing issue.

But such a presumption would simply be wrong. Some sections of Chinese society have certainly not done as well as others out of the country’s rapid economic growth of the last few decades. Corruption is rife and the power to criticise the government freely curtailed.

But, unlike the stagnation and despair that has been characteristic of Egypt, the broad story in China has been one of dynamism and optimism. The urban middle classes have been the primary beneficiaries of the Deng Xiaoping-initiated state-led capitalism that has seen China emerge from a poverty-stricken past into a richer, confident 21st century future.

But, opportunities for socio-economic progression exist virtually for all strata of the society, from the millions of peasants who migrate to the country’s boom towns to make a better living for themselves and more importantly their children, to the vast pool of rural and urban entrepreneurs for whom China’s freewheeling economic landscape has opened up a wealth of high-risk but high-reward opportunities.

The Chinese government is undoubtedly authoritarian, but it is far from totalitarian. The last three decades have seen the state withdraw from a number of areas of private lives of its citizens who are incrementally free to decide where to work, whom to marry or where to vacation. One Chinese friend once described the current government’s policy as: “shut up and get rich”.

And while it’s true that the primary freedom that has been extended to Chinese citizens is consumerist in nature: the freedom to make money to shop, this is a freedom with huge appeal. It is far from clear whether upturning the system, ala Tahrir, would bring real, positive benefits to the lives of most individual Chinese.

The Chinese party-state is sometimes characterised as paralysed or unable to effectively function either as a result of the chronic corruption that plagues it or the inconsistencies between its economic (liberal) and political (authoritarian) policies. But, what always struck me during my seven-year stint in the country wasn’t how unresponsive or sclerotic the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was, but rather its embrace of pragmatism and willingness to experiment with new ideas.

The party was aware that as the country grew richer and more integrated with the rest of the world, neither brute force nor censorship could on their own guarantee its survival. The delivering of growth has thus been the lynchpin of its legitimacy, making it in many ways more responsive to the people than a democratically elected government in India, where governmental legitimacy is derived more from the act of being voted in, than delivering on promises.

Popular resentments in China undoubtedly exist but the CCP has been successful, thus far, in ensuring they remain localised with anger directed at local officials rather than the system at large. And while in Egypt, the army eventually came out in support of the protesters, there is scant evidence that the same would be true of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in China today.

Nonetheless, the reaction of the CCP to events in has been nervous. The Chinese terms for “Egypt” and “Cairo” have been blocked on the internet. Facebook and Twitter are already disabled in China. The state media’s coverage of the events of the last few weeks has mostly stressed the need for ‘stability’ in Egypt, focusing on the dangers that the anarchy unleashed by regime change could spell for the country.

The emphasis on stability is ironic, given its own revolutionary origins, but the CCP today is a status quo party, for whom the idea of ‘chaos’ is an anathema.

Despite having steered China on course for its emergence as a true world power, the CCP is aware of just how delicate a tightrope it must walk daily, to retain its legitimacy. As in Egypt, inflation, in particular food inflation, is a major red flag afflicting the country. To give people the freedom to shop, only for them to find out that shopping is beyond their means, is a sure-fire recipe for anger.

The problem of employment for educated youth, one of the main sources of discontentment fuelling Egypt’s revolution, is a head-ache of increasing proportions for China’s leaders as well. While the rate of unemployment for those with a university degree remains low in China, the pay that new graduates can expect is falling and at RMB 2,000-3000 a month can be on par with that earned by blue-collar workers.

The problem for the CCP is that by letting the economic reform genie out of the bottle, it has created ever increasing expectations on the part of its populace which it is now in a constant battle to meet.

China lacks the safety valves for venting discontentments that democracies allow for. Neither demonstrations nor strikes are legal in the country. The Internet and other social media are subject to censorship. The CCP still relies on a centuries-old, creaky, petitions system whereby any Chinese citizen can theoretically petition the central government, as the emperor in imperial times, to look into a particular injustice they may face.

While precise numbers are hard to come by, a 2004 government-backed study suggested only some 0.4 per cent of cases are actually resolved through the petitions system. For most petitioners registering a complaint is not only cumbersome but akin to setting a message in a bottle afloat at sea.

In January this year, much was made of the fact that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the petitions bureau in Beijing. According to Xinhua, the official Chinese agency, this was the first time in the CCP’s history that a prime minister met with ordinary petitioners. The visit was hardly coincidental. Rather it was indicative of the deep concern the CCP has regarding the lack of effective popular grievance-redressal mechanisms in China today and the implications therein for its rule.

Given this background, despite the lack of any serious equivalence between Tahrir and Tiananmen, the events in should serve as a warning for governments, not only in the Arab neighbourhood, but thousands of kilometres east, in China as well.

Pallavi Aiyar is the Business Standard’s Europe correspondent. She is the author of Smoke and Mirrors, a memoir of her seven-year stint as a foreign correspondent in Beijing.

First Published: Tue, February 15 2011. 00:15 IST