Surf’s up. What started out as a ripple of unrest has now strengthened into a tidal wave sweeping the Arab world. Protesters have taken a stand to overthrow governments past their used by date in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Libya and now Morocco, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Western media outlets predictably cast their gaze from the Middle East to the Far East, hoping to eye a similar groundswell in China. But that headline will have to remain on hold for now.
There was some hype of the Jasmine Revolution sprouting at Beijing’s popular pedestrian shopping street in Wangfujing, But with well anticipated tighter public security and the bulk of the gathering more curious than revolutionary, it was a spectacular non-event.
There are many reasons such demonstrations are unlikely to be seen in China anytime soon, some good and some bad. Here are my thoughts on what separates China from the countries gripped by unrest:
- Economic stability – perhaps the single greatest motivator for an uprising. China recently leapfrogged Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. A country’s economic prosperity means nothing unless its people can share in it, and wealth distribution remains grossly out of whack in China. But people, by-in-large, are much better off today than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Chances are they will again be better off again in another few years’ time. There’s noticeable improvement.
- Strong employment – China’s unemployment in 2010 was 4.1%, compared to Tunisia (13.3%), Egypt (9.12%) and Libya (30%).
- Strict social media – An Egyptian father named his daughter Facebook in homage to the social networking site’s role in the country’s revolution. Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are all blocked on mainland China. But the forbidden fruit is available to Chinese in the form of Renren, Weibo and Youku respectively. All can be used at a much faster speed than on the other side of the Great Firewall of China, but they’re also strictly monitored.
- Internet censorship – Chinese search engine Baidu (far more popular than Google) screened entries containing “jasmine” (茉莉) following rumblings of the proposed revolution.
- Media’s message – a free press shares diverse ideas and opinions with its audience. Read any Western newspaper and you’ll be bombarded with hundreds of ideas about how society would be better run. This politician’s good, this one’s a rat bag, the economy is improving, we’re all in the toilet. There are some brilliant Chinese journalists and commentators who often present interesting ideas that make you re-examine your world. Problem is they’re few and far between in a largely undiluted state media.
- Food security – in 2011, famine is unlikely to threaten China like it has among some Arab countries. China’s inflation hit 4.9% in January with increasing food costs a major factor. But for the bulk of people, the pain in the hip pocket when shopping for daily necessities is unwanted, but bearable.
- On guard – the presence can, at times, be enough to stifle any non-mainstream thought. No where is public security more visible than in China’s own pocket of the Arab World in Xinjiang. When I visited Kashgar in 2010, a city more Beirut than Beijing, there were columns of soldiers and riot police running through their motions in the city’s People’s Square (人民广场). Granted Xinjiang is a more volatile region given its own unrest in 2009, but the message was clear: be on your best behavior.
But China isn’t immune to the uprising epidemic. It shares some traits with its Arab cousins that could be tinder for unrest, including government corruption, human rights violations, inflation, poverty and calls for democracy. I’m not sure China would be a better or stronger country with happier people if it followed in the footsteps of Egypt. All I know is this is one wave that won’t be ridden anytime soon.