These are fascinating times, as the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East might well be the beginning of a “Fourth Wave” of Democracy. Christian Göbel blogs for Barha, A Nordic Asia Research Community in association with Asia Portal – In Focus. Read the blog here:
The late political scientist Samuel Huntington once likened clustered incidences of democratizations to “waves”. After the apparent ebbing out of the “Third Wave”, which between 1974 and the early 1990s swept over Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, the time might have come for another democratic push. As a political scientist studying stability and instability of authoritarian regimes, I am extremely interested in the events that are currently unfolding, and as a China scholar, I naturally wonder if China will be caught in that wave should it occur.
To start with, it is quite significant that the current events in Northern Africa and the Middle East are not simply instances of political change, but revolutions, masses rising up to overthrow oppressive and often corrupt regimes. They are happening in regimes that, no matter their actual problems, were perceived as stable (which is also why we did not see the protests coming). They were long-lived, lacked an organized and visible opposition, their leadership appeared united, and the people were aware and afraid of the significant capacities to repress social discontent. That mass protests took place there despite these structural inhibitions means that theoretically, they could take place in China as well, something which some observers are predicting (and perhaps hoping for) and which no doubt the Chinese government is very much afraid of. Of course, one important question is if Chinese citizens have reasons to protest, another if they would like to see the regime gone. Both will be addressed below, but suffice it to say here that the developments in the Middle East have taught the Chinese leadership to take the repeated calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China very seriously. This is why it has displayed a massive show of government force at designated protest sites instead of taking a laissez-faire approach and trusting the legitimacy it has been building up for three decades now.