Will China have an Arab Spring?

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I just arrived in Cairo, perhaps the country changed most so far by the “Arab spring” pro-democracy movements sweeping across the Middle East, and it got me thinking about the future of authoritarian regimes back home in Asia – and most of all, China. There has been much talk about whether or not China is vulnerable to the sort of mass protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s government here in Egypt. The Chinese leadership apparently thinks it is. In recent weeks, Beijing has engaged in a tight-fisted crackdown on any perceived form of dissent – informal church groups, the international media, and most notably, outspoken artist Ai Wei Wei, who has been detained for alleged economic crimes. We can only speculate about the causes of such suppression – could it be linked to next year’s change of leadership? – but it is reasonable to assume, based on the timing, that Beijing is reacting to what’s happening in Egypt and its neighbors. The lesson Chinese officials seem to be learning is that it is dangerous to leave any potential source of anti-government activism uncrushed, no matter how harmless it may appear to be at the moment.

That, however, is the wrong lesson. I’m not going to claim any special powers to predict the future – who, after all, could have foreseen the “Arab spring” only a few months ago? – but I think China has little reason to worry about a similar uprising. And that is because of its superior economic performance. Yes, China is a seething mass of social dislocation brought about by rapid economic change. But it’s that same economic success that makes China different from the Middle East, and thus less susceptible to an “Arab spring”-style uprising.

However, that doesn’t mean economic progress will ensure the Communist Party can keep its grip on power indefinitely. Beijing’s leaders do have reason for worry that one day the Chinese people will rise up against them. But the causes will not be quite the same as those behind the “Arab spring.” The lessons China should be learning can be found much closer to home.

First, let’s look at China and the Middle East. A big part of the unrest you’re seeing in the Middle East is rooted in the inability of governments in that region to provide jobs and better economic opportunities for their people, especially compared to China. Just look at some stats (all from the IMF). China’s GDP per capita, in real terms, has surged two-and-a-half times in the past decade; Egypt’s has increased about 30%, Syria’s a bit over 22%, Yemen’s only 12%. More telling, China’s unemployment rate, at about 4% in 2010, was way way below the level found in “Arab spring” countries. Egypt’s unemployment rate was more than 9%, Jordan’s stood at 12.5% and Tunisia at 13%. For young people, the situation is much more dire. A recent report from consulting firm McKinsey pointed out that the Middle East suffers from the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, at 25%. (More on that subject coming in another post.) Is it any wonder that so many young people have taken to the streets in the region?

In China, on the other hand, there is a meaningful portion of the populace that is benefiting from Communist Party rule and thus has little interest at this point in overthrowing the current system, despite the constraints the government imposes on civil liberties and political activity. That’s one reason why attempts by activists to launch a Middle East-style “Jasmine Revolution” via the Internet fizzled. Unlike in the Middle East, where only those few connected to the authoritarian governments prospered, in China, hundreds of millions are getting richer. The result is a very different political climate. Based on my experience in China, my feeling is that there is a good amount of “buy-in” among the populace for the current political system, something that doesn’t exist to the same degree in large parts of the Arab world. People in China see their lives getting better, and want to keep it that way.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t widespread discontent in China as well. Some 900 million people still live in the countryside, which hasn’t experienced the great gains in income and development seen in China’s major urban centers. Even in the cities, life is hard for those at low income levels. Housing has become so expensive in Beijing that some residents were forced to live underground in converted bomb shelters, earning them the nickname “Mouse Tribe.” Yet China’s leaders are acutely aware of the potential political hazards posed by the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots and has been actively trying to improve the livelihoods of the remaining poor. The latest five-year plan has made bolstering the incomes of the average Chinese working family one of its top priorities, and the government in investing heavily in social services, such as enhanced healthcare. So in China, even those currently on the sidelines of the economic boom have hope of jumping into the game. And hope if a powerful tool by which the government can maintain public support.

But can more money to buy TV sets and cars compensate indefinitely for a lack of political rights and civil liberties? Though I don’t believe China’s Communists are vulnerable to an “Arab spring,” I do think they are vulnerable to a different sort of revolution, one in which those who have benefited from economic development choose to toss out the regime that brought those very benefits. China’s leaders should learn from what happened right next door, in South Korea. I’ll call it the Kimchi Revolution.

South Korea’s dictators, who ruled almost uninterrupted from 1961 to 1987, have probably been among the most economically successful in history. In 1961, the year of the coup that brought Park Chung Hee to power, Korea was among the world’s poorest nations, with GDP per capita of only $92, according to World Bank data. By 1987, the dictators had increased that to $3,368 – an amazing record. But that didn’t save the authoritarian regime. There had been protests throughout the period of dictatorship, mainly by students, but when the housewives and office workers – the middle class who were the winners of the economic advance – joined them on the streets of Seoul, the sitting dictator could no longer maintain his grip on the nation. Eventually, Koreans wanted political progress to match their economic progress. The economy was reformed and increasingly modern, but politics remained unchanged and backward.

Korea isn’t alone. The entire Asian region has become more democratic as wealth has risen. Taiwan and Indonesia went through successful democratic transitions. Malaysia, though ruled by the same party since independence, is becoming more politically fractured and open. Even in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew’s ruling party, which has governed the island since 1959, posted its worst performance ever in recent elections.

So the real challenge to China’s leadership is not an uprising by those frustrated with or not benefiting from the political system, as in the Middle East, but by the people the Communist Party has helped become rich. If the Communist Party wants to maintain power, it has to change. But the recent crackdown by Beijing shows the government is unaware of the lessons of Korea. Unreformed political regimes can’t survive in reformed economies.

In the end, dictators lose. If they keep their people poor and isolated, they face Arab springs. If they make their people rich, they face Kimchi Revolutions.