What China can learn from Egypt

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What China can learn from Egypt

Images of Egyptian security forces cracking down on protestors have provoked strong emotions in China. Last week, discussion of the violent sweep was at the top of trending-topic lists on blogs and search engines, while newspaper editorialists, bloggers and commentators offered a range of opinions that converged on one idea: Don’t let this happen in China.

“Stability maintenance” has long been a priority of the Communist Party, which spends billions of dollars each year on it. This can be ascribed in part to self-preservation by an unpopular government that faces, by its own account, tens of thousands of “mass incidents” - riots, protests and other incidents - each year, many of which are small and pose little threat to anyone but local officials.

Yet self-preservation isn’t the only explanation. China’s modern history until the late 1970s was marked by war, revolution, famine, the Cultural Revolution and other tragedies that impressed upon the party an appreciation for stability, even at the cost of personal and political freedom. Likewise, the material gains by China’s middle-class are substantial enough that many would probably think twice before rushing the barricades and risk diminishing their ever-rising home values.

Take Kai-Fu Lee, the former president of Google China and a prominent liberal, reformist voice on Sina Weibo (China’s most popular microblogging service); he’s certainly nobody’s patsy, especially the Communist Party’s. On Sunday, discussing an interview he did with a Chinese magazine, he tweeted his modest expectations for Chinese political reform without explicitly connecting to Egypt, although many people who left comments did. Lee wrote: “Like most people, I expect peaceful reform and progress, but I am not willing to see turbulence.” If individuals can be entrusted to manage reform, and if addressing corruption and environmental degradation are at the top of the agenda, Lee then counsels “patience.”

For those who think of China’s political reform movement in terms akin to the Tiananmen Square protestors of 1989 and Egypt’s current demonstrators, patience may seem to equal cowardice. But Lee’s desire for a peaceful evolution in China is mainstream and in line with the long-time rhetoric of China’s rulers.

On Friday, Mao Xiaogang, a columnist at the centrist, Communist Party-owned Beijing Times newspaper, wrote a piece ostensibly about Egypt. And yet seemingly tucked within it was his espousal of the Communist Party’s longtime justification for its emphasis on stability preservation: sustained economic growth. “Without social stability it’s impossible for a country to develop its economy and its people to live in peace and contentment,” he wrote. “The words ‘Maintaining stability is a top priority’ aren’t empty. The status quo in Egypt makes people realize the value of stability.”

People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, offered its own stability argument in a Monday editorial with the headline “Stability, the Correct Choice for Egypt.” The piece opines in terms understandable to any Chinese familiar with the party’s rhetoric over the decades: “Mubarak’s fall and the subsequent turmoil are a reminder that a falling boulder accelerates and anything can happen in a country that loses order.”

The problem is that most Chinese have a different definition of what constitutes “losing order” than those who have assigned themselves the job of maintaining stability. What seems a generally harmless protest to some may look like a boulder starting to roll to others.

To China’s online masses, there’s a fairly broad consensus on what’s not a threat: namely, the kinds of peaceful protests that occasionally happen in Taiwan, where protest is tolerated. In early August, a massive Taiwanese protest over a young conscript’s death during his military service caught the attention of Chinese bloggers, who sent it to the top of trending-topic lists through a combination of sympathy for the cause and genuine irritation that their Taiwanese compatriots can protest, and they can’t. When news broke over the weekend that Taiwanese were protesting housing demolitions and development projects by the government - a common problem in China - approving messages again proliferated. On Monday, one cheeky Weibo user posted an image of the Egyptian protests and a message suggesting that the protests in Taipei “deserve our study.”

Such protests would not be allowed in mainland China, despite the fact that news of them is widely disseminated (perhaps out of a naive belief by China’s propagandists that Taiwanese protests undermine the case for Taiwanese democracy). This brings up a question uncomfortable to both the rulers and the ruled: Why can the Taiwanese be trusted to protest and maintain stability, and we can’t?

On Tuesday, Ding Long, an associate professor at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, gave an answer in People’s Daily. He refers to young democracies as “preemies,” suggesting that they were born before they’d developed socially and economically. Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries are mentioned. China isn’t, but it certainly seems to lurk behind the shadows: “Democratization requires a ‘preparation period.’ Developing countries should focus on economic development at that stage, cultivating economic strength and social organizations in favor of democracy and civil society that are essential for democracy to take root.”

As agitprop designed to please a stability-conscious Communist Party, this is a refined opinion. As propaganda directed at a stability-conscious Chinese public, the sentiments - and the use of “preemie,” in particular - may be seen as condescending. That’s a wide gap, but for now it’s pretty certain that China will not become the next Egypt anytime soon.

*The author is the Bloomberg’s Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog.

by Adam Minter
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