By Kelley Currie
There has been speculation that China’s authoritarians stood to benefit from the wave of revolutionary political change that swept across the Middle East and North Africa, but the reality has proven more complicated. While the Chinese leadership has moved quickly —sometimes clumsily, sometimes not — to exploit some of the openings created by the dramatic events of the past year, the destabilizing nature of the “Arab spring” has challenged China’s diplomatic skills, and the values orientation and internationalization of local political changes have set Beijing’s teeth on edge.
Many analysts have noted that China shares some of the characteristics that led to uprisings across the Middle East last year: a stultified political culture; endemic corruption and ruling elite cronyism; growing economic inequality; and rising expectations, particularly among educated urban youth who are struggling to realize them. The ruling regime faces increasingly difficult public policy trade-offs in the chase to maintain sufficient economic growth without resorting to naked nationalism or coercion. The perception is growing that the party-state is struggling to deal with dissenting voices it perceives as threatening to its rule. The ongoing arrests and harsh treatment of dissidents, artists, lawyers and other activists, and the increasing difficulty of handling ostensibly non-political protests feed this perception.
The Chinese authorities’ task is complicated because they are operating in a wired world: urban areas of China have a high level of internet and mobile connectivity. China has an increasingly wired economy and citizenry that is able to publicize local events on a national level at previously unimagined speed. Citizens’ reactions to the deadly high-speed train crash outside the wealthy coastal city of Wenzhou last July represented a perfect storm of public frustration with corrupt imperious officialdom, infantilizing censorship and the unexamined costs of China’s breakneck economic development model. In addition, the increasing willingness and capability of Chinese citizens to publicly spoof and mock their leaders — on bold display after the Wenzhou crash and throughout 2011— demonstrates a palpable diminution of fear among at least some element of China’s citizenry. This trend rightfully alarms the brittle, self-regarding Chinese leadership.
But while the Chinese leadership’s extreme prickliness in response to political criticism and dissent reflects a lack of confidence, Beijing still has a number of things working in its favor. Economic growth continues to give the regime a substantial cushion. The central authorities have been remarkably effective in channeling popular discontent toward local authorities, so the Chinese people largely do not connect quotidian grievances about corruption, lawlessness and inequity with the underlying political system. Regular rotation of top leaders also serves as a safety valve guarding against the personalization of autocracy. While censorship can be grating, it is also extremely sophisticated, constantly walking the line between controlling flows of information to protect the party-state’s interests and provoking the wider public’s ire. Nonetheless, each of these sources of control has problematic aspects, and the half-life of Chinese leadership legitimacy has been shrinking since Mao. China’s robust economy and relatively savvy authoritarianism mean that its control probably is not eroding fast enough to put China in the category of states that are presently ripe for revolution, but it should definitely be on everyone’s watch-list.
From an international perspective, China’s view of the Arab spring is likewise mixed. Chinese diplomacy is generally characterized by a ruthlessly pragmatic opportunism. The current Beijing government appreciates predictability and stability in its relations with other countries. The regime’s overriding objective in foreign policy is to maintain a permissive global environment for the preservation of the regime’s political prerogatives — which imbues its pragmatism with a certain authoritarian bias. While this conservative element of Chinese foreign policy means it often can be clumsy in dealing with periods of fluidity, the offsetting pragmatism allows it to quickly abandon old friends once it is certain they have lost power.
These streams of conservatism and pragmatism have generally served Beijing well in responding to events in the Middle East over the past year. China has kept itself largely aloof from these issues, content to stand back and let western democracies and regional players set the tone. When China has asserted itself, the results have been mixed. After reluctantly supporting United Nations’ action in Libya, Beijing was alarmed that NATO went beyond what it saw as the limits of authorized action to remove Muammar Gaddafi (with whom China had a tempestuous relationship). China subsequently joined with Russia to veto Security Council action on Syria and has suffered few consequences for doing so. Beijing’s prickly reaction to nascent democratization in neighboring Burma (Myanmar) likewise demonstrates its need to balance long-running concerns about the possibility of domestic contagion from others’ political liberalization with the need to maintain good relations with key regional players.
China remains extremely uncomfortable with international activism that it views as impinging on a country’s sovereignty or promoting a democratic agenda. However, Beijing is also increasingly loathe to find itself outside the regional and international consensus and can be moved to engage once it sees this is in its interest. In the parlance of Chinese policymaking, Beijing is “crossing the river by touching the stones” as it attempts to navigate the repercussions of the Arab spring at home and abroad. Whether this approach — cautious yet forward-oriented — will allow China to escape this latest wave of political change remains an open and closely-watched question for 2012.
Kelley Currie is a senior fellow researching human rights, democracy and humanitarian issues in Asia at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington DC think tank. This Commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org