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By Su Hsing Loh
The political tide that has turned against dictatorial leaderships in Tunisia and Egypt, and is swiftly spreading across North Africa and the Middle East, has led to intense speculation on whether China may be next.
Online calls within China for street protests are among signs that simmering social discontent might possibly manifest itself on a larger scale. The Chinese government has reacted by censoring coverage of the events in Egypt and Tunisia, offering selective news coverage of how the revolutions have led to wide-spread unrest and economic instability in the neighbouring regions. More than a hundred activists in China have been rounded up by the police and, in yet another display of lack of savvy in dealing with foreign media, the government has reportedly clamped down hard on activities by foreign journalists in areas where the protests are scheduled to take place, escalating the bad press.
In this context, the annual 'two meetings' by the
While these objectives appear to be laudable, inconsistencies abound. Wu Bangguo, Party Secretary and Chairman of the
With the possibility of even slight political change diminishing, the looming question persists: is China set for a revolution? This remains unlikely for a number of reasons. Due to the large-scale efforts to control dissent, most of the Chinese remain unaware of the recent calls for protests online. Protests (or what the CCP terms 'mass incidents') in China are usually issue-specific, related to personal grievances and largely scattered and localised, with only a small segment of the population intent on overarching change based on political ideology. There is no strong galvanising force as yet to bring disgruntled Chinese together as a force for political and social change. The Chinese organisers of the Jasmine revolution have asked people to simply bring their families and take a walk at the sites as a sign of peaceful protest. However, the sites chosen are perpetually crowded spots in the cities, for instance Wangfujing in Beijing and People's Square in Shanghai. And the organisers have requested that the protesters gather every Sunday at 2pm, a day and time when the areas experience peak human traffic. This makes it virtually impossible to discern passerbys from protesters. While this is presumably intended as a safe and anonymous way for demonstration, it also reduces the meaningfulness of the exercise, with some dismissing the calls for dissent as a gimmick and not a genuine call for political action. The security apparatus and physical coercion also makes protests virtually impossible. At the annual session for NPC, the total budget for domestic security was 95 billion dollars, while the budget allocated for national defence was 91.5 billion dollars, the first time that the budget for the former has exceeded the latter, and a telling sign that the government sees domestic 'threats' as more severe than external threats and will channel more resources to repress opposition.
Most importantly, the Chinese have mixed sentiments towards replacing the incumbent regime. Compared to Tunisia and Egypt, the stakes are far higher in China. Having achieved a sustained rate of economic growth, and with China now widely perceived to be the rising economic and political giant of the century, the Chinese are only too aware that replacing the incumbent regime comes with high opportunity costs. While the benefits of a fast-growing economy have not trickled down to all levels, most Chinese do perceive that as the lesser of two evils. Whether the extent of these opportunity costs are perceived (i.e. the result of political rhetoric) or real is debatable, but what is clear is that radical political upheavals would undermine investors' confidence and severely compromise the current growth trajectory. In addition, the CCP has been the dominant party since 1949 and has left opposition parties limited political space to grow or mature. The young generation of Chinese have grown up under propaganda education, censorship, sustained economic growth, and have never experienced any other political system. What would be the feasible alternative in its place? Should hope lie in a regime change, or a change within the incumbent regime? These remain dilemmas confronted by the Chinese populace.
While the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt largely centered on removing a dictator at the apex, toppling the CCP entails revamping an entire system - a system that has amply showcased its demerits and at the same time, its merits. The CCP has prioritised economic growth over environment and public health, failed to manage glaring income-disparities, and been at the centre of controversies and corruption. But at the same time, its leadership lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, improved China's international political standing, and steered China's phenomenal economic growth since the 1970s. These redeeming qualities are constantly weighed against its failings, leading to conflicted Chinese sentiments toward the regime, and the CCP government continues to enjoy a certain level of popular support that was clearly lacking in Tunisia and Egypt. Most Chinese are not confident that even if the CCP is replaced, the ensuing party, regime or system of governance will not be corrupt. The CCP has also enjoyed moderate success in harnessing nationalist sentiments against historical aggressors and perceived western bullying, to channel discontent toward external sources and convince the populace that even with its shortcomings, it remains the best leadership to safeguard China's interests.
(Su Hsing Loh is an Associate Fellow in the Asia Programme at Chatham House.)
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World - China: Weak Impetus for Change | Global Viewpoint