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China’s Worried Response to the Uprisings in the Middle East

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 25, 2011

    The success of popular movements in the Middle East has raised the apprehensions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has been reminded of its own weakness and soft underbelly. President Hu Jintao has issued orders to party officials to “solve prominent problems which might harm the harmony and stability of the society.” The Chinese Government is worried about the impact of the Middle East upheavals on China, given that ongoing developments in that region remind China of the ‘Tiananmen Square’ incident.

    The CCP has always argued against the democratic system by stating that it did not work for every country. In recent articles in the Chinese media, the CCP has cited the examples of Japan and South Korea and the presence of foreign military forces in these countries to boost its argument. However, the successful ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the spirit of Tahrir Square have caught the attention of the Chinese Government and made it contemplate whether it too will face a similar fate at the hands of the Chinese people. The success of the protest movements in the Middle East demanding regime change could be the most ‘problematic’ international development for the CCP. It will have to deal with the possible fallout very carefully, because of its potential domestic consequences.

    The CCP has witnessed two major uprisings recently. One was in Tibet in 2008 and the the other, a more violent one, took place in Xinjiang in 2009. These incidents, coupled with thousands of other protests that have become the hallmark of contemporary China, brought into question the concept of ‘harmonious development’. These instances have raised fundamental doubts about the ability of the CCP to rule in China and questioned the logic of economic progress as a means to integrate Chinese society. Economic growth has not been able to pacify popular discontent in Chinese society fuelled by various inequalities present in modern China.

    In present day China, there is a circular relationship between political stability, economic development and the political legitimacy of the CCP. The Chinese Government is working to maintain stability in order to continue with economic development, which in turn gives it the legitimacy to rule. However, improved living standards have brought another set of problems for the government. With economic development, people have access to modern means of communication, which has enabled them to share information with others by avoiding the virtual firewalls created by the internet police of the party. The CCP is also worried about the role internet and telecommunications can play as a mode of protest. The government has stepped up monitoring of information on the various internet sites. Hu Jintao recently said that there was a need to “enhance and complete management of information on the Internet” and to “establish a system of public opinion guidance on the Internet”.

    The Chinese Government also understands that the present situation in China is not the same as it was in 1989. The challenge today is to manage the flow of information in a manner that it does not lead to protests. In 1989, the government had managed to control the information flow with the help of the army. Today, the Chinese military is more advanced than in 1989, though it is also more vocal about its perspectives on the Chinese national interest. Under Deng Xiaoping the party was assured of complete loyalty of the army. However, with the change in the structure of the leadership and its waning aura, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has emerged as an influential power centre. In the last decade, the army has been playing a very important role in foreign policy making as well as in domestic politics. The CCP leadership may not suspect the loyalty of the PLA, but it does not want to push the situation in a direction that forces the PLA to seek an independent identity and voice. Therefore, the stance that the PLA is likely to take in case of a Chinese version of the ‘Jasmine revolution’ is not clear.

    The Chinese Government has been working very hard to control reports about the Egyptian movement. The party controlled media, especially People’s Daily and Global Times, have been issuing calls for the establishment of peace in Egypt without taking a position on the protests. It is clear that the Chinese Government, which faces a large number of protests and demonstrations regularly, is worried about the potential fallout of the Egyptian uprising for the regime in China. Following the eruption of protests in Egypt, the State Council Information Office and Bureau 11 of the Ministry of Public Security in China issued the following directive stating in clear terms the limits on the use of information:

    “For the disturbances in Egypt, media across the nation must use copy circulated from Xinhua. Websites are to strengthen [monitoring] of posts, forums, blogs, and particularly posts on microblogs.”

    It also stated that the watchdogs would “forcibly shut down websites that are lax in monitoring”. It is thus obvious that the Chinese authorities have chosen to err on the side of caution in the wake of anti-establishment movements in the Middle East. The CCP has worked hard to highlight the benefits of economic reforms while delaying political restructuring inside China. If recent instances are any pointer to its strategy, then it is apparent that stability will be the primary objective of the CCP regime in the People’s Republic of China.