Recent upheavals in the Middle East—including the overthrow of the governments in Tunisia and Egypt, riots in Bahrain, and near civil war in Libya—raise the question of what lessons the People’s Republic of China, and especially the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), are likely to have learned.
The concern focuses not only on whether the Chinese foreign policy of non-interference is appropriate and sustainable (although the attacks on Chinese oil workers in Libya prompting their likely evacuation would suggest not) but also whether the Chinese are likely to interpret this upheaval as underscoring the need to become more democratic.
What we have seen of a Chinese reaction suggests, however, that such views are hopelessly optimistic. The Chinese leadership’s immediate reaction has been to clamp down on the parts of the Internet that are accessible from within China. This has included restrictions on Web sites such as LinkedIn, as well as blocks on searches for terms such as “Egypt” and “Jon Huntsman” (the U.S. ambassador to China).
For the Chinese leadership, a reasonable question is whether they see many parallels with their own situation. Both Egypt and Tunisia are far poorer than China. Thus, Tunis and Cairo arguably had fewer resources with which to either buy off or suppress protestors.
Moreover, the Egyptian and Libyan militaries do not see their fates as tied to that of the Mubarak and Qaddafi regimes. By contrast, the CCP has gone to great lengths to ensure that the Chinese military, whose officer corps are almost all members of the CCP, identifies itself with the Party. The divestiture of military-run businesses ensures that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has few distractions and is a further contrast between the Chinese and Egyptian militaries.
Nonetheless, the growing disparities between the Chinese coastal and inland regions, the great inequalities between the Chinese rural and urban populations, and real questions about corruption and lack of accountability are all sapping domestic Chinese cohesion. For the next generation of Chinese leaders—such as Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who are associated with the “princelings,” or children of senior Party officials—the ongoing unrest in the Middle East must raise real questions about the problems that will confront them.