ARAB UPRISINGS: Dengist China and Arab Despotism Are Two Different Worlds

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By Shastri Ramachandaran* in New Delhi

The unceasing waves of protests and uprisings against Arab regimes have given rise to a tantalising question: Why have the winds of change sweeping the Arab world not had any effect on the Chinese people and aroused them against their own government?

There are many reasons for the absence of tumult in China. These reasons become clear if one takes an unbiased view of the country.

It may be argued that China, like many Arab countries including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, has an authoritarian political order. True, but all dictatorships are not alike. Neither are all democracies. Doubtless, China is a dictatorship. It is the dictatorship of the Communist Party.

Unlike most Arab dictators who were, and are, propped up by external powers (mainly the United States after the sun set on the British Empire) for securing their own strategic, security, political and economic interests, the Chinese instrument of dictatorship is a revolutionary product of its own people and their nationalism.

The Arab leaders targeted by their own people are autocrats presiding over authoritarian regimes for personal aggrandisement. The families and cliques at the helm of these states enriched themselves, looted public money and stashed it away abroad; their repressive reign saw the people and their rights being trampled underfoot; and, their national, political and economic interests being sold out. Government was seen as being run for personal power and profit alone.

The issue was not over forms of government -- democracy versus dictatorship. The issue was, and remains, whether the state and the ruling elite are committed to the well-being of the people. By that yardstick, China is, in market lingo, an outperformer. It has fared better than some of our formal democracies, especially in the developing world.

Now consider China's political and economic history with that of the besieged Arab regimes, and it is evident that there can be no comparison made between the two.

Not too long ago, semi-feudal, semi-colonial China was backward and isolated. People were dirt poor. Mao's revolution unleashed the process of an epochal transformation that is still unravelling. The primitive, old China perished. On the political foundation laid by Mao, grew a spanking New China. Deng set in motion the impulses for the turbo-charged economic development and growth of the last 30 years.

Maoist China and Dengist China are different dimensions of the same country. Mao's focus was political liberation, Deng's economic emancipation. China as a political and an economic entity, each inseparable from the other, is a creation of the Communist Party.

China's all-round development in the 60-plus years since the proclamation of a People's Republic makes for a fascinating study. Its rise as a global power is based on its stability and prosperity; on the strengths of an economy that can feed over a billion people and meet the basic needs of the majority.

Its stunning economic growth has been inclusive. When it comes to education, business, employment, enterprise, travel and trade, there are no restrictions. Studies and surveys, including by credible western institutions, show that close to 90 per cent of the Chinese are content with conditions in the country and what they are getting out of it.

On the flip side, China faces serious challenges. Hundreds of thousands of "mass incidents" -- minor riots, social upheavals, demonstrations and protests -- have occurred across China in the last few years. These "mass incidents" do not always make headlines abroad like the Tibet and Xinjiang riots, but they point to the dark underside of rapid growth: income disparities, rising unemployment, displacement of rural populations, corruption, criminality, environmental degradation, slivers of extreme poverty, social malaise and the discontent of the deprived sections.

These can emerge as threats to China's stability. China's lack of political pluralism allows no room for letting off steam. Political control is tight and dissent put down with an iron hand. The state's coercive power, as Tiananmen Square showed in 1989 can be crushing. Since then technology has spawned new options such as the Internet, blogs and social media. But then the technology of control, too, has grown to block Facebook and Twitter.

Since February 20, 2011 the date on which Internet postings sought to incite a Jasmine Revolution-type of stir in China, the government has clamped down heavily. Security, surveillance and Internet policing has been intensified. That suggests not that unrest is gaining, but that the government will not take any chances. On the other hand, people have shown that they can break through the tightest of policing when they have to.

The people, like the government, have too much at stake in what has been accomplished so far. On balance, the achievements of the Party outweigh its failures. The Chinese as a people have extraordinary endurance, and are not predisposed to swift and violent change. Change in China is always slow to emerge, and orderly. The leadership transition in 2002 was smooth. The next change of leadership is due in 2012.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have had a splendid run until now. They are unlikely to either allow the situation to get out of hand or reveal the iron fist behind the velvet glove. The last thing the present leadership wants is blood on their hands when they can retire without fear of being disgraced. That may explain Premier Wen pleading for more openness and freedom to criticise the government.

The resistance to the line of accommodation advocated by Premier Wen indicates that the leaders-in-waiting may be hardliners. Even so, the latter would not want to test the waters now, when they are only months away from holding the reins of power.

Therefore, from the political and economic viewpoint of the Party, government and competing factions of no-changers and pro-changers within these two, there's little to be gained by stirring things up or pushing for a confrontation.

For the world at large, there are two lessons. One, just as some democracies may fail to deliver, there can be dictatorships dedicated to the well-being of their people. Two, the contagion from the Arab world is no respecter of political form, and democracies run as a profit enterprise by and for the elected elite are not safe for all time.

*The writer is a former Editor of Sunday Mail and has worked with leading newspapers in India and abroad. He was Senior Editor & Writer with China Daily and Global Times in Beijing. For nearly 20 years before that he was a senior editor with The Times of India and The Tribune. Besides commentaries on foreign affairs and politics, he has written books, monographs, reports and papers. He is co-editor of the book State of Nepal.

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