Could Egypt’s Revolution Spread to China?

The Peking Duck blog answers for White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who was asked at a press conference whether Egypt and Tunisia’s revolutionary momentum might reach China:

Anything is possible, I suppose, but the very idea of Chinese activists being so inspired by the riots in Egypt that they’d try to implement the same tactics in China is so absurd it’s laughable.

The only renowned activist in China who’s been pushing for democratic reforms is named Liu Xiaobo, and he’s sitting alone in a jail cell. And most Chinese people believe that’s where he belongs. Not only did he never garner anything like mainstream popular support, he’s considered a “criminal” and a “traitor” by most Chinese citizens who, unfortunately, only know of Liu through the government-owned Chinese media. The Chinese are in no mood to follow anti-government activists into the streets to battle the army and the police.

Most Chinese, as we’ve said here many times, have little to no interest in democratic reforms. The vocal few who do quickly become marginalized or silenced altogether. A major factor behind both the Tunisian and Egyptian conflagrations was poverty and massive unemployment. Recent explosions in the price of food helped bring these crises to a head ….

China has done a far better job than Egypt and Tunisia in terms of keeping people employed and placated. Its public works projects and subsidies of Chinese businesses have helped keep unemployment in check and, unlike in Tunisia, the mood in China (at least when I was there last a few months ago) was wildly optimistic. Tunisia and Egypt are poor, China is rich. Massive riots are virtually unthinkable. Today’s Chinese have little appetite for chaos.

ChinaGeeks’ Charles Custer responds:

Certainly, Beijing is not Cairo. But protesters in Cairo weren’t following some famous pro-democracy activist into the streets, so I’m not sure Liu Xiaobo is an apt comparison to draw here. People in China may consider Liu a criminal, but the Prime Minister just encouraged more people to come out and air their complaints about the government, the idea that Chinese people might act more or less on their own isn’t absurd.

And while I haven’t followed Egypt closely before today, I don’t think China has done as great a job placating everyone in the last few months as you seem to suggest. Inflation is still a problem everyone is pissed about, but the widening gap between rich and poor might be equally explosive. And Qian Yunhui, or the 77 RMB lady, are just the most recent examples that Chinese people are more cynical than ever before about the government.

I would be shocked to see massive anti-government protests calling for a new government like the ones in Cairo. But I wouldn’t be too surprised to see another “Li Gang” incident spark some real unrest about inflation, housing prices and the wealth gap, given the right circumstances.

The article and comments thread as a whole are recommended reading.

See also: China Blocks ‘Egypt’ on Microblogging Service, and the original question from the White House press conference, together with Gibbs’ response:

Q: Can I ask you about China? It seems like a leap, and geographically it is, and culturally it is, but when President Hu was here there was a lot of discussion about human rights and about the need as you become more powerful to consider elements of free society or rule of law. Does the U.S. believe — or do you think that China should be concerned in any way about what’s happening in Egypt? Or do you think it’s — they’re such completely different societies and that this is mostly an Arab-Muslim thing at this point?

MR. GIBBS: Let me make sure I understand. Are you talking about our posture toward China or —

Q: No, I’m talking about the notion of citizens around the world in societies with —

MR. GIBBS: Let me —

Q: — that don’t feel are open enough deciding to take to the streets?

MR. GIBBS: I think that — again, I think it would be — if I’m not going to generalize across a region, I probably shouldn’t generalize across several regions.

Q: I just want to know about one country, not —

MR. GIBBS: No, no, I understand. But to discuss this as it relates to one other country would be to do — would be to dip my toe into the pool of generalization, which I’m certainly not going to do.

I will say this. Again, I think the issues that the President talked with President Hu of China about and the issues with which President Hu told all of you that there was work to be done, that is the case regardless of what happens in any other country in the world. And the President has expressed his concerns about that, and I think you saw those concerns quite honestly expressed by President Hu.

This comes 31 minutes into the video (transcript here).

January 29, 2011 2:12 PM
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