China and the Arab Revolutions

“Go ahead sue me, my father is Li Gang!” shouted the unrepentant young son of a senior police officer in a provincial Chinese city last October. His car had just been forced to a stop by passersby after he had mowed down two young girls, killing one. Today, “my father is Li Gang” is a widely used expression in China, to refer to the impunity with which those connected to halls of power, can get away with their crimes. It is an impunity that is familiar to the people of Tunisia, where Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in desperate protest. Even the acts of protests are by no means unique.  A few months earlier in September, three people in eastern China too, set themselves on fire to protest the demolition of their home, one among the many thousands of forced demolitions that take place in the country at the behest of corrupt local officials.

And yet, while Ben Ali has fled Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak has finally been dislodged, China’s leaders remain ensconced in power despite the thousands of protests, big and small, that take place in the country every year.

The difference between the East Asian and North African regimes is perhaps best explained by the story of the coconut tree and the oak. When the tempest came, the coconut bent with the wind and remained standing, while the oak proud and unwilling to bend was torn from the earth, roots and all. China’s authoritarian political system has been extremely nimble in the last three decades and more at both adapting to and changing the political climate to ensure its survival. While it crushed ruthlessly the 1989 democracy movement, it also soon moved to co-opt the same sections of society that had provided support for the movement, primarily the middle classes.

Rather than concentrate all power in one person or even in a select few, the Chinese Communist Party sought to increase its membership – to some 80 million, now – and to draft into its ranks, the educated and the talented. These select are allowed the freedom to be frank and critical to the rulers, as long as they accept the legitimacy of the Party – a party that also provides them with privileges and perks that came from supporting the ruling regime.  In addition, all of China’s classes share in the country’s economic growth, even if to varying degrees.

The Arab regimes by contrast often treat those among the educated who question the government as enemies to be jailed or exiled. Meanwhile, the man on the street remains oppressed not just by the regime but also by stagnant economic growth and opportunities. What opportunities that exist have been visibly cornered by the tiny ruling elite even as bread riots take place in the streets or the educated remained jobless. This in turn feeds into a slow but sure religious radicalization of the young and the unemployed.

The parallels with Pakistan are obvious even if Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani has declared that Pakistan would not see the events of Tunisia or Egypt repeated on its soil because it had functioning and democratic institutions. Perhaps. In a sense, the lawyers movement of a few years ago that ultimately led to the fall of Gen. Pervez Musharraf could be seen as a precursor to the protests in the Arab world. Yet, that might also be stretching the parallel a bit, for there is no evidence that the Pakistani case has been an exemplar anywhere in the Muslim world or indeed, that it has materially changed the conditions for the man on the Pakistani street.

Nor is it likely that Arab dictatorships are going to learn any lessons in survival from  East Asian authoritarianism, and even if they wanted to, it might already be too little too late or well nigh impossible. After all, even Pakistan which is China’s closest ally in Asia and in the Muslim world, has itself learnt little of either stability or economic growth from its friendly neighbour.

Meanwhile, though the Chinese government is blocking access to news of Egypt and its technology-enabled street protests, the Chinese have plenty of examples to inspire them at home. Another Li has been in the news recently. Li Na, losing women’s finalist at the Australian Open last month walked up to the umpire in the middle of the match asking, “Can you tell the Chinese, don’t teach me how to play tennis?” Li had had enough from her countrymen in the stands but her temerity in asking a Britisher (read ‘foreign devil’) to tell her fellow Chinese to shut up upset many back home conscious of their country’s ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of Western imperialist powers.

And yet, ordinary people everywhere have to appeal to a neutral actor – whether God or America – to come to their aid in times of trouble. Like Li Na, the Tunisians and Egyptians too have had enough and so it seems have their counterparts elsewhere in the region. To return to the story of Li Gang, the fact that he had to go on television to apologize in tears for his son’s behaviour in response to furious public reaction around China, is also saying something.

Read the original here: Jabin T. Jacob, “The people have spoken,” Dawn, 18 February 2011.

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