international analysis and commentary

Egypt in Chinese eyes

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It’s the economy, stupid. Chinese leaders are probably thinking along these lines after witnessing what could well be the beginning of a democratic transition process in Egypt. For the ongoing events cannot but convince the Chinese Communist Party that it has taken the right development path: focus on improving the economic well-being of citizens; socio-political change, if and when it comes, is a matter for the future.

Beijing’s immediate response to the crisis was to censor information related to the protests and demonstrations in both Egypt and Tunisia. Chinese citizens do not have a full account of Hosni Mubarak’s struggle to avoid the same fate as Ben Ali. Nor do they know that the former Tunisian president is now openly derided by a population that is slowly learning about the luxurious lifestyle that his family used to enjoy. It would be foolish to expect the Chinese government to act differently and allow information on the revolutions spreading through the Arab world to circulate freely.

However, the Chinese media have not completely shunned discussion of these events, though the story Chinese citizens are hearing is not the same as that told in the West. Shortly after the protests in Egypt began, Chinese media reportedly received orders from the government to follow Xinhua’s coverage of developments in the country. Xinhua, the government’s official press agency, has been focusing on two issues: the need for stability to return to Egypt as soon as possible and a discussion on whether democracy is necessarily good for all countries and societies.

From a Chinese point of view, calling for stability makes perfect sense. The Chinese economy is increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern energy resources in order to keep driving economic growth. Any event that leads to instability in the region could potentially have a negative impact on China. Ongoing protests in Egypt are no exception to this. In addition, Chinese leaders would not want the population to learn about demonstrations against a non-democratic regime. Though the risks of contagion are almost nonexistent, the thought is that it is better to be safe than sorry.

Meanwhile, the Chinese media have engaged in a debate over whether democracy works in all countries or not. Certainly, this is nothing new. Over the past few years this issue has been discussed periodically. Leaders in Beijing are no longer afraid to talk about issues such as democracy or individual liberties and freedoms. At the same time, they are willing to openly argue that democracy and rights are not necessarily understood in the same way everywhere. Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the United States is proof of this. After Barack Obama said that all nations should uphold the universal rights of every human being, Hu responded that the US ought to respect China’s choice of development path. This involves improvement of the economic well-being of the Chinese population before substantial socio-political reforms are discussed.

If anything, the protests in Cairo, Tunis, Beirut and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa are only going to serve to reinforce the Communist Party’s belief in its current development model. As most specialists in Middle Eastern politics have pointed out, the current wave of demonstrations is primarily related to economic stagnation, not to a sudden thirst for political freedom. A lack of jobs has been the driving force behind people taking to the streets. Chinese leaders learned this lesson more than twenty years ago when student demonstrations, related to a lack of graduate-level jobs, ended up developing into the 1989 Tiananmen Square standoff.

Unlike in many Arab countries, the Chinese economy has been booming for the past two decades. More importantly, economic growth has been trickling down to the general population. By some accounts, China’s middle class is the largest in the world today. This is a testament not only to the size of the country’s population, but to the success of economic reforms. As many in China put it, why would the population want to overthrow a government that has done more for the general population than any other since the 19th century? Of course this could change if protracted economic stagnation was to arrive and jobs were to become scarce. This is why the Communist Party did not hesitate to enact a 586 billion dollar stimulus program when the global financial crisis threatened the Chinese economy.

At this point, Beijing is waiting to see who replaces Mubarak after his thirty years in power. Similar to the United States, and the European Union, China is more interested in the stability of the Middle East than in the type of government in Cairo. Bread-and-butter issues drive most people around the world. Egyptians are no different, nor are the Chinese.