Three reasons Arab wave won't reach China

The West is guilty of wishful thinking when it excitedly imagines people-powered revolt in the Arab world spreading to China. There is dissatisfaction in China. But Tiananmen Square is not poised to become a Tahrir Square anytime soon. Here's why.

In the past week or so, a lot of Western press has been given over to the question, “Is China the next Egypt?” Why this question is receiving so much attention puzzles me. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking: We’d like to see every country under authoritarian rule become more democratic. But looking at China today, even if I squint really hard, I don’t see a government at risk of being toppled by mass protests soon.

This is not to say that Chinese people are uniformly happy, or even satisfied, with their government. There are the poor who aren’t participating in China’s skyrocketing prosperity; there are the powerless who see their lands seized from them by those more powerful and better connected; there are the college-educated who can’t find jobs commensurate with their skills and expectations; there are the activists who have been silenced (sometimes brutally), placed under house arrest, or imprisoned by the state. And, there’s the sort of culture of official corruption where a hit-and-run driver can taunt his pursuers by shouting, “Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang!” (the deputy director of Baoding City’s public security bureau).

Countries in the Middle East where the 'winds of change' are blowing

There is dissatisfaction in China. But Tiananmen Square is not poised to become a Tahrir Square anytime soon. Here are a few reasons why.

Phenomenal growth

First, and most obvious, under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) China has enjoyed 30 years of uninterrupted economic development. GDP has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent for the past two and half decades. Children live much better than their parents, who, in turn, live much better than their parents. Pundits may point to the fact that Egypt’s GDP has experienced solid growth in recent years as well. But growth there has been half that of China; and more telling is the percentage of Egyptians still living under the poverty line, a whopping 20 percent, compared to China’s 3 percent.

Wisely, too, the Chinese government has dedicated much of its new wealth to building up the country’s infrastructure. By pouring money and resources into the road and highway system, subway lines, high-speed rail, power grids, telecommunications, schools and education, and water supplies, for example, the CCP has sought to improve China’s standard of living. In these projects, Chinese people find some tangible signs of a government that is giving back to the country. In Egypt, the popular perception was that former President Hosni Mubarak used the country’s growing prosperity mostly simply to enrich himself, his family, and his cronies.

Second, that China in 2011 is now counted among the world’s great powers, economically and politically, is a source of great pride among the Chinese people (consider the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics). Remember, this is a country that just over 30 years ago viewed itself – and was viewed by much of the world – as backward. The people’s deep pride in witnessing their country’s triumphant return to the global stage cannot be underestimated; it’s a pride that serves to bolster the legitimacy of the current government, since the CCP, after all, has been the guiding hand responsible for shaping China’s emergence as a 21st-century superpower.

Third, China is ruled by a party whose leadership changes at least every ten years. In 2002, President Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin as party leader; in 2012 Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Mr. Hu for the two five-year terms allowed by the Constitution. In Egypt, under Mubarak, the government was embodied in the person of one “strongman” – for a full 30 years. The grievances of the Egyptian people could find a ready target in this one man; he was a natural focal point for their disaffection.

Changing leadership

In China there is no similar focal point, in part because CCP leadership is routinely changing faces, and in part because within the leadership there are differences of opinion (which often make their way into the press) – over foreign relations, the domestic economy, the rule of law, environmental stewardship, the rise of nationalism, and Internet freedom, for instance. That there exist differences within the party helps to mitigate the intensity of people’s opposition to one-party rule.

At the Feb. 19 meeting with high-level government officials Hu, according to Xinhua News, “acknowledged that despite China’s remarkable social and economic development and growth in its overall national strength, the country is ‘still in a stage where many conflicts are likely to arise. There are still many problems in social management.’” Xinhua paraphrased him as further saying, “The government should speed up the development of various social sectors by developing education as a priority, promoting employment, reasonably adjusting income distribution, and perfecting the social security system that covers urban and rural residents.”

And in an Internet chat directly with the people this week, Premier Wen Jiabao, in the words of Xinhua, “laid out three planks of government policy essential to maintaining stability: closing income gaps; equal benefits and opportunities for rural residents; and eradicating corruption.”

This isn’t Mubarak’s government. This is a government that realizes what it is expected to do to maintain the support of its people – and its own legitimacy.

Daniel K. Gardner is Dwight W. Morrow professor of history and director of the Program in East Asian Studies at Smith College and the author of

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