The wave of protests demanding democratisation and economic reform in the Middle East has been headlines for weeks. Perhaps no one never predicted that Tunisia would be soon followed by Egypt, while protesters in Lybia and Yemen are now increasing their actions amidst government pressure. The so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’ has indeed inspired many to voice their distrust of the political authority.
Countries whose governments are facing continuous domestic demand of democratisation and economic justice might think they would be on the turmoil lines too. Including in these is China. While geographically China is distant from the Middle East, but thanks to globalisation the Chinese may already hear about the ‘Jasmine Revolution.’ We understand these days that Beijing, while not openly acknowledging it, fears such a ‘revolution’ may also occur in China.
Is such fear justifiable? Will the world witness soon a widely-supported mass protest with ‘Chinese characteristics’ that may topple down the Communist Party? In this essay I argue that it will not be the case, at least in the short term.
No one will doubt that China is a big country. It is one of the great powers of today’s world. The key for this is economic reform that has been in place since 1978. China is very proud it can mix socialist and market economy, or in Beijing’s favourite term, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Indeed, this term has been used in many ways to indicate China’s uniqueness as reflected by its name:Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom.
Chinese economic reform, in general, is a success story. However, experts are quick to point out that it also has resulted in negative outputs. Corruption, environment degradation, and wide economic gap between China’s coastal cities and rural provinces are among those widely cited problems. Corruption, not political reform, was in fact the major factor behind the protests in Tiananmen in 3-4 June 1989. It is still a major problem since then. Also, in the latest five years, more and more demonstrations are protesting the government’s dealing with environment issues.
While it seems that a large number of Chinese are enjoying their ‘slices of economic cake’, Beijing understands that not everyone is happy. Therefore, when Chinese officials learnt that economic injustice could throw governments out, they were afraid of the same fate. When they understood that calls for political reform could be ‘dangerous’ to a regime’s grip on power, they responded in such a way to avoid it from happening in China.
On 5 March, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao addressed his countrymen that the government would work harder to fulfil people’s needs. He said that reducing poverty and promoting social security were two top priorities. At the same time, however, he also stressed that more money would be allocated to improve law enforcement bodies. These policies were seen by many as proofs of the Communist regime fearing of their likely abrupt end.
Yet, situations in the Middle East and the Middle Kingdom are different. It is true that economic injustice was present in both, but governments handled them differently. Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, and (perhaps soon) Libya’s Gaddafi were not addressing this issue seriously. As a matter of fact, not only did their economic policies widen the gap between the rich and the poor, but they also enriched themselves through extortion and rent-seeking activities. Economic imbalance and corruption are therefore a good recipe for turmoil and, consequently, likely demise of a regime.
While endemic corruption is notoriously found in China, the Communist regime dealt with this far better as some ‘big fish’ got caught and sentenced. More cases of corruption occured in the local level than in Beijing. It is reported that top powerholders in today’s China were relatively free of corruption. At the same time, they promised to deliver more and more economic progress to the Chinese. An enjoyable result of more than 30 years of economic result may perform as a ‘strong shield’ against such a revolution.
Politically speaking, regimes in these countries had similar policies in dealing with political reform. There was no place for opposition, a free press, and those who disagreed with the regime were often met with violent suppression from the military and police. Despite being resulted from ‘general elections’, top leadership in Tunisia and Egypt was centered on single figures, who had been too long in power. While it is true that the Communist Party has been in power for 61 years, but post-Deng Xiaoping leaders were better organised in how they came and would leave their offices. They would say that political reform could wait as long as people continue to prosper.
Another Tiananmen is unlikely
While the world is waiting worryingly for the end of the Libyan disorder, it is also interesting to learn what Beijing will do in the near time. If it fails to prevent similar uprising from happening, it may think twice to relentlessy suppress its own people. It had understandably learnt about what happened following the tragedy of Tiananmen, where brutal repression was its ultimate respond to people’s protest. Economic progress halted as China was condemned by the international community. Another Tiananmen would likely result the same, or much worse, thing.
A ‘(Jasmine) Revolution with Chinese Characteristics’ seems to be inattractive if the Communist regime is able to keep promoting economic growth and tackle down the issues of corruption and environment more seriously. Once again, economic progress is the key, but there will be the time when political reform is a must. Revolution, should it occur, may built China in worse or better shape. The ball is in Beijing’s court to determine who would come victoriously: Gordon Chang’s idea of ‘the coming collapse of China’ or Ross Terrill’s notion on ‘the new Chinese empire’.
[This post was originally published on 26 March 2011 at http://dragonandeagle.blogspot.com/2011/03/no-way-for-jasmine-revolution-with.html]