Francis Fukuyama: Is China Next?

In the Wall Street Journal, Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, asks whether China will be the next scene of a revolution overthrowing an authoritarian regime:

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 most typical case of outraged dignity in contemporary China is a local government that works in collusion with a private developer to take away the land of peasants or poor workers to make way for a glittery new project, or a company that dumps pollutants into a town’s water supply and gets away with it because the local party boss stands to profit personally. Though corruption in China does not reach the predatory levels of certain African or Middle Eastern countries, it is nonetheless pervasive. People see and resent the privileged lives of the nation’s elite and their children. The movie “Avatar” was a big hit in China in part because so many ordinary Chinese identified with the indigenous people it portrayed whose land was being stolen by a giant, faceless corporation.

There is, moreover, a huge and growing problem of inequality in China. The gains from China’s remarkable growth have gone disproportionately to the country’s coastal regions, leaving many rural areas far behind. China’s Gini index—a standard measure of income inequality across a society—has increased to almost Latin American levels over the past generation. By comparison, Egypt and Tunisia have a much more equal income distribution.

March 11, 2011 10:51 PM
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