“Is China Next?”

Francis Fukuyama: apparently he’s still alive? I thought he would have died of shame after his neocon foreign policy vision collapsed, taking a few countries with it. Regardless, he’s written up a thorough article here about whether the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions could spread to China, and parts of it are worth a read:

But do these remarkable developments tell us anything about the possibility for future instability in China?

It is certainly true that the dry tinder of social discontent is just as present in China as in the Middle East. The incident that triggered the Tunisian uprising was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, who had his vegetable cart repeatedly confiscated by the authorities and who was slapped and insulted by the police when he went to complain. This issue dogs all regimes that have neither the rule of law nor public accountability: The authorities routinely fail to respect the dignity of ordinary citizens and run roughshod over their rights. There is no culture in which this sort of behavior is not strongly resented.

This is a huge problem throughout China. A recent report from Jiao Tong University found that there were 72 “major” incidents of social unrest in China in 2010, up 20% over the previous year. Most outside observers would argue that this understates the real number of cases by perhaps a couple of orders of magnitude. Such incidents are hard to count because they often occur in rural areas where reporting is strictly controlled by the Chinese authorities.

The fact is that authoritarianism in China is of a far higher quality than in the Middle East. Though not formally accountable to its people through elections, the Chinese government keeps careful track of popular discontents and often responds through appeasement rather than repression. Beijing is forthright, for example, in acknowledging the country’s growing income disparities and for the past few years has sought to mitigate the problem by shifting new investments to the poor interior of the country. When flagrant cases of corruption or abuse appear, like melamine-tainted baby formula or the shoddy school construction revealed by the Sichuan earthquake, the government holds local officials brutally accountable-sometimes by executing them.

The Chinese government is also more clever and ruthless in its approach to repression. Sensing a clear threat, the authorities never let Western social media spread in the first place. Facebook and Twitter are banned, and content on websites and on China-based social media is screened by an army of censors. It is possible, of course, for word of government misdeeds to get out in the time between its first posting by a micro-blogger and its removal by a censor, but this cat-and-mouse game makes it hard for a unified social space to emerge.

The bottom line is that China will not catch the Middle Eastern contagion anytime soon. But it could easily face problems down the road. China has not experienced a major recession or economic setback since it set out on its course of economic reform in 1978. If the country’s current property bubble bursts and tens of millions of people are thrown out of work, the government’s legitimacy, which rests on its management of the economy, would be seriously undermined.

The truth is that, much as we might theorize about the causes of social revolution, human societies are far too complex, and change too rapidly, for any simple theory to provide a reliable guide. Any number of observers dismissed the power of the “Arab street” to bring about political change, based on their deep knowledge of the Middle East, and they were right every year-up until 2011.

The hardest thing for any political observer to predict is the moral element. All social revolutions are driven by intense anger over injured dignity, an anger that is sometimes crystallized by a single incident or image that mobilizes previously disorganized individuals and binds them into a community. We can quote statistics on education or job growth, or dig into our knowledge of a society’s history and culture, and yet completely miss the way that social consciousness is swiftly evolving through a myriad of text messages, shared videos or simple conversations.

The central moral imponderable with regard to China is the middle class, which up to now has seemed content to trade political freedom for rising incomes and stability. But at some point this trade-off is likely to fail; the regime will find itself unable to deliver the goods, or the insult to the dignity of the Chinese people will become too great to tolerate. We shouldn’t pretend that we can predict when this tipping point will occur, but its eventual arrival, as Samuel Huntington might have suggested, is bound up with the very logic of modernization itself.

I’d mostly agree with that. The key is admitting that although the timespan is a mystery right now, the way things play out is pretty much inevitable if Beijing won’t change course.

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Filed under China, Jasmine Revolution

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