Amid Mideast unrest, is China next?

Like many Arab nations, China has one-party rule, corruption and soaring food prices – but experts say that its stunning record of economic success militates against pressure for revolutionary change.

A fear of social chaos among a population who suffered through the Cultural Revolution and the feeling that there is a better future, even under the current political system, also make revolt unlikely, they say.

A web campaign calling for demonstrations Sunday in 13 major Chinese cities similar to those that brought down the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia was met with a massive security clampdown and the arrest of several top activists.

China’s ruling Communist party has seemingly learned the lessons of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests, which ended in a bloody crackdown that saw hundreds, if not thousands, killed by army fire in the heart of Beijing.

“I don’t think China will be the next domino,” Perry Link, a China scholar at the University of California at Riverside, told AFP.

“If you add together the parts of the population who are intimidated, who have been bought off, who have been indoctrinated or are in the dark, who would rebel but are not organised… there just isn’t a big enough part of the population left to make a domino.”

The leaders in Beijing have watched with concern as revolution swept through Tunisia and Egypt, and then spread to Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco and Libya. - Photo by AFP

The leaders in Beijing have watched with concern as revolution swept through Tunisia and Egypt, and then spread to Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco and Libya, where dozens and maybe hundreds may have been killed in days of unrest.

In response, the Communist government has detained up to 100 leading rights activists and lawyers, according to campaigners. It has also forcefully censored media reports about the unrest, and restricted Internet chat.

Officials are especially wary of the power of social media – a major factor in the organisation of the Arab protests – as more than 450 million people are now online in China, or about a third of the population.

Jean-Louis Rocca, a sociologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the situation in China does not closely resemble that in the Middle East and North Africa despite some similarities, making a revolution unlikely.

“There is strong support for the regime here, even if the people are not happy. There is no will for regime change,” Rocca told AFP.

Daniel Bell, a professor of political philosophy at Tsinghua, agreed, saying there was a “desire for social change – for more openness, more freedom of speech, more social justice and so on” but not for “revolutionary change”.

The Global Times, a nationalistic sister newspaper to the Communist party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, downplayed the protest call, likening the small turnout to “performance art” and saying the public did not back the movement.

“Neither throwing jasmine flowers in Beijing nor hyping social disruption in Western media will stir up public interest in overturning social progress,”the paper said in an editorial published Monday.

Thanks to the country’s spectacular economic growth over the past 30 years, the Communist government has helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty and sparked the emergence of a middle class with money to spend.

While massive difficulties remain, “overall we don’t have a feeling of deep crisis in China comparable to that in Egypt or Tunisia,” Rocca said.

“There is neither despair nor an impression that there is no future,” he said, despite the high levels of unemployment, especially among young university graduates.

The people, whose national pride stems from China’s re-emergence as a major world power, mainly want Beijing “to do what it has promised” –  bridge the rich-poor divide, establish rule of law, and guarantee pensions and health care, Rocca said.

For Bell, “there are opportunities in China for social mobility which were lacking in the Middle East… opportunities for entrepreneurs to succeed”.

“The conditions are very different,” Bell says.

Experts said another key difference is that while the government in Beijing is based on authoritarian one-party rule, it is not dynastic in nature, nor is it centred on one person, as in Egypt or Libya.

“Here, no one would be able to chant, ‘Out with Hu Jintao’,” Rocca said.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert at Hong Kong Baptist University, agreed, adding, “The leadership changes every 10 years. We’re not talking about a family that is getting rich.” Cabestan said as the standard of living improves, the population, especially the middle class, will want stability above all, although he warned localised protests could flare up in provincial capitals against rampant corruption.

“It’s not the time to rock the boat,” Cabestan said. “Conditions are not ripe for direct confrontation (with the authorities). It’s probably too early for that right now.”

From AFP:Amid Mideast unrest, is China next?