Are the “flower revolutions” in the Middle East and North Africa endangering stability in China? by Christian Göbel

2. Mar 2011

These are fascinating times, as the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East might well be the beginning of a “Fourth Wave” of Democracy. The late political scientist Samuel Huntington once likened clustered incidences of democratizations to “waves”. After the apparent ebbing out of the “Third Wave”, which between 1974 and the early 1990s swept over Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, the time might have come for another democratic push. As a political scientist studying stability and instability of authoritarian regimes, I am extremely interested in the events that are currently unfolding, and as a China scholar, I naturally wonder if China will be caught in that wave should it occur.


To start with, it is quite significant that the current events in Northern Africa and the Middle East are not simply instances of political change, but revolutions, masses rising up to overthrow oppressive and often corrupt regimes. They are happening in regimes that, no matter their actual problems, were perceived as stable (which is also why we did not see the protests coming). They were long-lived, lacked an organized and visible opposition, their leadership appeared united, and the people were aware and afraid of the significant capacities to repress social discontent. That mass protests took place there despite these structural inhibitions means that theoretically, they could take place in China as well, something which some observers are predicting (and perhaps hoping for) and which no doubt the Chinese government is very much afraid of. Of course, one important question is if Chinese citizens have reasons to protest, another if they would like to see the regime gone. Both will be addressed below, but suffice it to say here that the developments in the Middle East have taught the Chinese leadership to take the repeated calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China very seriously. This is why it has displayed a massive show of government force at designated protest sites instead of taking a laissez-faire approach and trusting the legitimacy it has been building up for three decades now.


In a related manner, one might argue that social protests are nothing new in China, and that they even serve as a pressure valve for the regime. For years, we have seen an increase in the number of local protests, and most of these protests are directed against specific grievances. In my opinion, these protests are not system-threatening because they are localized, issue-specific and signify that the population still has trust in the central government to address these grievances. The “Jasmine Revolution,” however, is very different, as it addresses systemic deficiencies, is coordinated and encourages demonstrations all over China. In addition, the Chinese government has a very hard time dealing with the ambiguity of the movement: on the hand, the organizers profess that they do not want to overthrow the government, but to peacefully express society’s discontent with rising food prices, corruption and more generally the lack of government accountability. On the other hand, the term is deliberately borrowed from movements trying to unseat the governments in their respective countries.


When the riots in Tunisia started in December 2010, I doubted that they would spread to China. My argument was that in contrast to Tunisia (and perhaps most of the other countries recently gripped by protests), the last 30 years have not only seen unprecedented economic growth, but also important legal and political reforms. Despite continuing social inequality, life has improved for nearly everyone in China. Having seen the protests spread into bastions of authoritarianism like Egypt and Bahrain, I am not so sure anymore if this, while true, really matters. The protests in Northern Africa and the Middle East come at a very bad time for the Chinese rulers and could inspire protests in China as well.


Not only the recent hike in food prices and the looming real estate bubble, but more fundamentally the continuing revelations about poisoned food, fake medicine, environmental degradation and other issues that directly concern personal well-being are taken very seriously by all strata of the Chinese population. Many citizens blame the government for being too lax against these crimes, and suspect that corrupt officials are protecting those responsible for them. These and other cases of corruption and favoritism, which are all documented on the internet, draw, as blogs and comments show, an increasingly irate virtual audience. The developments in the Middle East might well inspire parts of this audience that a turn-out in great numbers will pressure the government to seriously address these issues.


This explains why there is potential for wide-spread and non-issue specific protest, even if it is not aimed at overthrowing the government. Why, then, the paranoia of the Chinese government? What probably troubles those in power are two things. First, although the Chinese people might be grateful to the CCP for the improvements in livelihood they have enjoyed in the previous 30 years, they might not be sure if the CCP is able to continue delivering these goods under the present system. Just like in 1989, protests aimed at systemic deficiencies might develop into protests directed against the system itself, simply because the system, lacking channels of political accountability and competition, does not allow for an institutionalized input of public discontent. Discourse within the movement might lead to a radicalization of demands and aims, which is especially likely if the government does not react adequately to the challenges presented by these groups. This is closely connected to a second issue, the regime’s conflict capacities.


Hierarchical organizations such as the Chinese security apparatus find it very difficult to deal with symbolism, satire, and ambiguity more generally. Their organizational thinking revolves around different kinds of threats, and the more evolved an organization is, the more threat scenarios it will have worked out, and the more responses to each threat it will have planned. Problems occur when an event that is not threatening to the regime is treated as one that is, as violent reactions against non-violent protests always prove the protesters right. Arresting a man for laying down a white flower at the McDonald’s in Beijing’s Wangfujing Street, beating and detaining foreign journalists reporting on a (non-)event, or blocking the word “jasmine” on the internet invites not only accusations of over-reaction, but also mockery of the regime. Such events might easily escalate, leading to even harsher responses and finally massive resistance against a regime perceived as unduly coercive.


While it is by no means certain that wide-spread protests will materialize in China, the government’s precautions illustrate that it is afraid of them and does not rule them out. The coming weeks and months will be interesting, as they will provide us with important insights into the capabilities of the CCP regime to deal with crises. One thing, however, we have already learned. The hard resolve to nip the peaceful “Jasmine Revolution” in the bud shows us just how unsure the CCP regime is about the amount of legitimacy, trust and goodwill it really enjoys among the people of China.


Christian Göbel, PhD
Research Fellow
Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies
Lund University