Is the Arab Spring Coming to China? The Missing Piece of the Puzzle
Monday, November 4th, 2013
Pro-democracy protests in Beijing, China, 2011. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Following the breakdown of autocracies in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in early 2011, the international community turned its attention to China, the largest single-party-rule-state in the world. Analysts and commentators have debated the likelihood of a similar round of popular protests and demonstrations in China. At the 48th Munich Conference on Security Policy, U.S. Senator John McCain warned the Arab Spring would spread to China. “I have said on many occasions and I will say again the Arab Spring is coming to China as well,”said McCain. Will the Arab Spring ignite similar uprisings in China? Could such uprisings shake the foundations of the Communist Party rule in China?
It is in this context that this article examines the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) fear of the Arab Spring, and provides a conclusion on whether such fears are founded and if a similar uprising in China is indeed in the near future.
Revolution in China? The CCP’s Fears
The revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011 alarmed the Chinese government. The Chinese authorities became concerned that these protests and demonstrations could trigger similar social unrest in China. During the early stage of the Arab Spring, the Chinese state media—mostly controlled by the Chinese government—effectively ignored the existence of the protests and demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
When the situation in the MENA region intensified, the Chinese media still had very little coverage of the events—primarily focusing on the Chinese government’s efforts to evacuate its citizens from Egypt. Similarly, to prevent the Chinese people from reading related news on the internet and further online discussions regarding the Arab Spring, the Chinese authorities blocked politically sensitive websites and suspended internet search requests for certain key words, such as “Arab Spring,” “Egypt,” “Cairo,” and “Jasmine.”
Weeks after the uprisings in Tunisia, with anonymous online organizers calling for protests in designated places in major cities, China saw a series of minor “Jasmine” protests. During these protests, the most common complaints shouted by protesters were: “We want food, we want work, we want housing, and we want fairness.”
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government reacted to these minor protests with overwhelming police presence, and the Chinese “Jasmine Protests” ended swiftly.
Social Drivers of Unrest in China
Similar to the factors underlying the Arab Spring, social drivers of popular discontent in China are many: corruption, unemployment, growing socioeconomic inequality, and rising prices, among others. These factors have created accumulated tensions in China, fueling a growing problem of social instability.
Corruption is a key grievance driving uprisings throughout the Middle East and North African region. Ben Ali was tried in absentia at the Tunis criminal court in June 2011 for his corrupt practices and drug trafficking. Hosni Mubarak was also charged for corruption at a Cairo trial in August 2011, in addition to the charge of unlawfully ordering the deaths of hundreds of protesters.
In China, while the economy is growing, corruption is growing as fast as or even faster than the economy. Corruption has touched almost every single corner of the society, from economic, political, and judicial sectors to social, medical and educational areas. The widespread corruption in China is acute and persistent, and has become one of the top driving forces for popular social discontent. Research confirms that the high rate of corruption in China is at a comparable level to that in Tunisia and Egypt. The Corruptions Perceptions Index (CPI) indicated that China was scored at 3.5 for its corruption rate in 2010, while Tunisia and Egypt were scored at 4.3 and 3.1, respectively.
Moreover, a series of protests in China in the past few years illustrate the dissatisfaction of the Chinese public with state-based corruption. These protests were motivated mostly by land seizures that are linked to complaints over official corruption. One of the largest anti-corruption protests recently was the Wukan protest, which began in September 2011 and ended at the end of December 2011. Wukan villagers accused local officials of selling the villagers’ farmland without providing proper compensation. Similar anti-corruption protests also occurred in Haimen, Guangdong Province in December 2011 and the East and West Panhe villages in Zhejiang Province in February 2012. 
In sum, corruption has become a critical driving force for social unrest and political instability in China.
Another powerful social force behind the protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North African region is the inability of governments to provide jobs for their people. Unemployed young people in particular have become increasingly frustrated with poor job prospects, thus playing a critical role in fueling recent uprisings in the Arab World.
Despite rapid economic growth, China sees similar unemployment issues. As the global economic growth has slowed down since 2008, many Chinese workers have lost their jobs. The official unemployment rate in China was reported at 4.1 percent in 2011. However, this comparably low official number only counted urban “registered” unemployed people; hundreds of millions of unregistered and unemployed migrant workers unaccounted for.If all the residents are counted, registered and unregistered, it is estimated that the actual unemployment rate in China has reached 22 percent.This number is much higher than Egypt’s unemployment rate of 9.4 percent in 2010 and Tunisia’s unemployment rate of 13.3 percent in the same year.
Furthermore, Chinese universities have had massive enrollment expansion since 1999. Over 60 percent of high school graduates in China now go to universities for higher education. However,, as with the young graduates in the Middle East and North African region, educated young Chinese have a hard time finding jobs after they graduate, and this issue is becoming critical for the Chinese government.
Socioeconomic inequality is another crucial driver for potential social unrest in China. China’s economy has been growing at an impressive rate, with annual GDP increasing by an average of 10 percent over the past 20 years. However, increasing affluence has not led to a more equitable society in China. Excessive wealth is amassed in the hands of a few, and socioeconomic inequality has widened even further in China.The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, has risen in China from a low of 0.33 in 1980 to 0.52 in 2010. The current Gini coefficient is higher than the UN’s stated threshold of high inequality level readings of 0.4 to 0.499.
China’s large income gap threatens social unrest due to severe levels of inequality.
Inflation and Rising Prices
Finally, in addition to corruption, unemployment and socioeconomic inequality, another major concern in China is inflation and rising prices. China’s overheated economy has triggered acute inflation. From food to clothes to fuel to housing, prices have risen across the board in China. The cost of food items continue to climb; gas is more expensive than it is in the U.S; with the money paid for a small apartment in a third or second-tier city in China, people can comparatively afford a nice three-bedroom house with a big yard in the Midwest in the U.S.
China, however, is not the United States, and the GDP per capita reflects China’s economic status in the world as one that is still developing. The average monthly salary in China is only about 600 USD. Chinese incomes barely keep pace with the rising prices. If this situation deteriorates to the point that the majority of the Chinese cannot afford food and other basic living needs, social unrest may follow.
China is unlikely to have its own Arab Spring
Despite these critical drivers of social unrest, it is unlikely for a version of the Arab Spring to occur in China, at least in the near term, for reasons related to the Chinese culture and political system.
Western scholars may argue that such factors as corruption—in this case, political cronyism— and a public inflicted with widespread discontent pose serious threats to the Chinese government and may result in popular social unrest, but in this there is a general lack of an appropriate cultural perspective.
The absence of a cultural approach is a common critique of political theory: “Although culture is one of the most powerful concepts in the social sciences, the discipline of political science was slow to exploit it in spite of its obvious relevance for many basic concerns in the discipline, such as legitimacy, tradition, constitutional norms, and basic national values,” as summarized by Lucian W. Pye in Political Culture Revisited.
Western scholars often overlook the fact that Chinese culture is itself stymying of an Arab Spring-like revolution in China. However, they may question whether the culture is strong enough to prevent social protests against corruption, high unemployment, social inequality and inflation from boiling over into widespread rebellion that may lead to a revolution. What exactly is in such political culture that would have such an overriding power over contrary forces?
There are a few factors, rooted in Chinese culture, that keep China away from revolution, at least, for the next few years. Political cronyism, corruption and a perceived lack of fairness areby no means the products of modern times; they have a very strong historical background in China, and they have been part of Chinese political culture for thousands of years.
While the Chinese may dislike such political culture, a political mobilization around this discontent is unlikely to take place unless the impact of severe enough as to affect their everyday lives.
In this, a closer examination of Chinese history offers a more complete picture of the country’s political culture and what the threshold of rebellion appears to be.
A Legacy of Political Cronyism
Political cronyism can be found in every single Chinese dynasty. It generally involves internal struggles for special privileges or a certain position of authority. Political cronyism may result in “public mistrust in government that limits the effectiveness of core government functions.” But the measured impact on Chinese people’s everyday lives varies.
Unqualified candidates are appointed to certain positions of authority and not surprisingly, political cronyism is closely bound to bribery and corruption. Corruption itself is a key theme in the history of Chinese political culture. It is important to understand China’s history of corruption and its impacts on China’s present and future.
Looking through Chinese history, no dynasty had collapsed singularly because of corruption. The replacement of dynasties in Chinese history was a result of combined factors. While the Ming Dynasty does provide an example in which a Chinese dynastic power succumbed to the people’s uprising against widespread corruption, power-hungry eunuchs and political issues regarding China’s borders with Japan and issues with other minority groups also weakened the Ming government. Again, rebellion in the Ming Dynasty broke out not because of corruption itself; rather the citizenry were politically mobilized after being rendered unable to make a living due to the widespread corruption, especially after a devastating famine.
Summarily, so long as the government steadily brings prosperity, a political mobilization surrounding the public’s discontent with an inheritance of corruption in public leaders will be limited. Currently, Chinese people are more worried they will have to lose much from any radical social or political change. Yet, this belief is based on the expectation that the Chinese economy continues to grow. The superior economic performance has been giving the Chinese authorities a significant cushion. Unlike the Middle East and North African countries, there are lots of economic opportunities in China. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are becoming wealthier. Although socioeconomic inequality is widening in China, ordinary Chinese people’s lives are improving overall. There is hope in China. Even the economically disadvantaged or unemployed Chinese people believe they are lucky to be able to take the opportunities and become wealthier one day.
Change in the Chinese Political System
Many analysts and commentators have questioned the long-term viability of China’s single-party-rule political system. There will be some changes in the long term; however, the Chinese way of democratization will not follow the western model. The Chinese government has been revising its ruling ideology to allow necessary changes. It slowly directs China to move towards a more democratic society. Other party members and non-party members gradually raise their voices in important national meetings. They participate in more decision-making processes than ever before. Even China’s former Premier Wen Jiabao called for political reform of the leadership system of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government, although he did not precisely state what political reforms he hoped to see.
Prediction for a long-term change is non-communist party members or non-party members will eventually become part of the decision-making committee. However, this may take years or even decades. Another prediction is this significant change will be made without uprisings or revolutions considering the facts that the CCP has been trying to adapt itself to a changing world, and it has been willing to promote China’s development in a more democratic way.
The Chinese Government’s Efforts to Prevent a Revolution
The Chinese government is aware of the potential hazards posed by corruption, inflation and other drivers of social unrest. In response to corruption, the Chinese government organizes political campaigns to fight corruption. More than 700,000 government officials receive anti-corruption education every year, including “lectures, case studies and visits to historic sites, [and] attendance at court trials and talks with people who have been imprisoned for corruption.”
Furthermore, prosecutions of widely covered cases involving high-level officials have been on the rise in recent years.
The Chinese government has also been trying to minimize the impacts of inflation on Chinese people’s everyday lives. The Chinese government imposed strict price controls onimportant daily necessities, especially on foods; it also raised the minimum wage in urban areas over the past few years., Moreover, the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee adopted an amendment to the Individual Income Tax Law in 2011.
This amendment raises the monthly individual income tax exemption threshold from 2,000 RMB (about 309 USD) to 3,500 RMB (about 541 USD). This change directly affects 60 million Chinese. In accordance with the Pew Research Center’s pools, 87 percent of Chinese people were satisfied with the current regime in 2010, which is a huge difference if compared to the 28 percent satisfaction rate in Egypt.
China is not likely on the verge of breaking up due to reasons rooted in Chinese culture and the Chinese government’s willingness and efforts to adapt itself to a changing world. The Arab Spring offers a warning to the Chinese authorities. However, for a more sustainable and democratic future, the Chinese government must implement political reforms, making significant efforts to fight corruption, to create more job opportunities, and to reduce socioeconomic inequality and inflation.
Ying Chen was conferred a doctorate in juridical science from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law this year. She has written on Chinese domestic and foreign policy. Chen has an article in the forthcoming 2013 issue of European Journal of Law Reform on Chinese investments in Africa, and she has written on China’s one-child policy and its impacts on women’s and child’s rights in the New York International Law Review.
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Ibid Art. 6
Parello-Plesner, supra note 23.