Many think the political turmoil in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordon and Yemen is a warning to Beijing that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could be the next authoritarian regime existing on borrowed time. Many lecture Beijing that for the country to avoid similar political turmoil, it needs genuine political reform and the Chinese people need more freedom. But that is not the way most leaders in Beijing see it. The current turmoil is only reaffirming to Chinese leaders that they need to tighten rather than loosen their grip on political and economic power.
There is no doubt that Beijing is keeping a wary eye on events in the Middle East even as it maintains an awkward silence. By the government’s own figures, there were an estimated 125,000 instances of mass unrest against officialdom in 2009. Few of the protesters demanded democracy but instead were venting their frustrations over land seizures, corruption, exorbitant local taxes and levies, etc. Nevertheless, the current censorship of any Internet search terms such as “Egypt,” “Tunisia” and “Middle East unrest” attests to the fear that spontaneous, large-scale and long-lasting protests not only can occur throughout China but potentially could bring down the government.
Though events in the Middle East might alarm some CCP leaders, those events would not have surprised them. Authoritarian governments are often ruthless, but it is only because they are acutely aware of the discontent and frustrations of their own people – precisely why those governments rely on the state’s coercive apparatus to suppress dissent and dismantle opposition. But while many Western observers hope the unrest in Egypt might cause the CCP to think twice about maintaining its iron grip, unrest in the Middle East is bring home some very different lessons for Beijing.
It comes down to the CCP’s understanding of recent history, which focuses on different aspects than our own outlook. In the West, the falls of communist regimes in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe were not just historical turning points; they were seen widely as the political triumph of the individual desire for freedom over suppression and arbitrary rule. The CCP also devoted enormous time, resources and manpower to understanding the reasons why those governments fell. Indeed, since 1991, reports produced by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences about why the Berlin Wall fell have outnumbered all official studies by governments in the United States and Europe. But even though the CCP would not necessarily disagree with the statement that individuals want freedom, its leaders have been trying hard to ensure that a different endgame plays out in China.
The current generations of CCP leaders learned important lessons about the party’s vulnerability during the Tiananmen protests in 1989. But the Soviet and Eastern European revolutions taught the party two important lessons.
First, in analyzing those events, Beijing realized those communist regimes were seen as incompetent, uncouth and irresponsive. The governments were disrespected, mocked and seen as farcical. Worst of all, those authoritarian regimes had become irrelevant to the country’s economic, social, intellectual and community ruling class. If authoritarian governments wanted to remain in power, the events from 1989-91 convinced Beijing that it needed to renegotiate fundamentally the bargain between the government and its economic and social powers. The decision was made to make the CCP the center of Chinese economic, social and community life – and irrevocably tie the future of China’s upper echelons to the exclusive rule of the party. This was the rise of modern China’s authoritarian capitalism. The fact that China’s state-controlled sector lies at the heart of its modern political economy was a lesson learned from revolutions in Moscow, Prague, Budapest and Berlin, in addition to the countrywide protests throughout China in 1989.
Second, while Western commentators were celebrating the triumph of the individual human spirit and democracy, the CCP came to the more sobering conclusion that authoritarian regimes are at their most vulnerable when they are at their most lenient. After all, a diverse and independent civil society can only thrive when citizens no longer fear their government. This explains Beijing’s alarm over and intolerance for non-state-sanctioned groups such as unions, Christians and the Falun Gong members exploding in size and number throughout Chinese society. It also is why private blogging sites, which have the potential to give spontaneous life to virtual communities of discontentment, are treated with suspicion. Finally, it explains why China has become more severe on its dissidents since 1989 despite the country’s economic development.
This brings us back to the unrest in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt. For the CCP, governments in that region are in trouble because they have done a poor job of winning over the powerful. For example, among the most passionate protesters in Cairo are unemployed college students demanding change – similar to what occurred in 350 cities throughout China in 1989 (which was on a much larger scale). The CCP also would consider the statement by the Egyptian army vowing not to use force against the demonstrators and calling their protests legitimate to be evidence of President Hosni Mubarak’s failure rather than a mark of the strength of Egyptian civil society. Indeed, as far as Beijing is concerned, the Mubarak regime has long lost its self-belief and with it the ability to exercise tight control over its own army. The sight of protesters hugging Egyptian troops on top of army tanks is evidence of a too-lenient and ill-disciplined regime that is losing its authoritarian legitimacy and capacity to hold onto power.
History is a great teacher to all governments. But the current lessons are telling Beijing to embrace more tightly and purely its authoritarian faith rather than abandon it.
By John Lee, a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and the Hudson Institute in Washington. He is author of Will China Fail?