May 06 2012
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China's fears about the Arab Spring
There was an interesting article in the financial press at the end of April that said American intelligence services had found out that the Chinese authorities were concerned that the Arab Spring that began in December 2010 could spread to its own land. This apparently caused waves of concern in Beijing and prospects of a "Jasmine Revolution" in the Asian powerhouse were quickly crushed by the authorities.
This brings up an interesting point about China. In contrast to other economies that are part of the "BRICS" bloc, it was the only one that was outwardly threatened by the social disorder that affected parts of the Middle East last year. You didn't hear of similar concerns in India or Brazil. There is no doubt that both countries have their problems, however, China's are of a very different nature. The challenge of China's Communist political system and its leaders is to try and keep the country's political heritage whilst modernising the economy and protecting its place as the world's second largest economy. This is not an easy balancing act as the leadership in China is finding out.
So what do the people of the Arab world and China have in common? Firstly, the young are connected to the internet and are aware of what is going on in the world. If people feel like their governing bodies are corrupt then they have a means to vent their frustration that can reach millions and sometimes billions of people. The internet, especially social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, are powerful tools when used in conjunction with social protest. Secondly, people in China and parts of the Middle East both share concerns about their political systems. Egypt, Tunisia and Syria were, or are, still run by all-important dynasties with close ties to the military. Charges of corruption, failure to put the needs of the people first and a history of aggression towards its people have been loaded at these countries. Similar concerns have been voiced in China.
During the Arab Spring protests the governments being challenged by their people portrayed themselves as being in the country's best interests, protecting them from the "opposition". Emergency law in Egypt for example, was deemed a necessity for decades although it meant that some people were not tried in courts of law and effectively handed absolute power to Mubarak and his team. In a similar way, China also crushes any opposition to the ruling power. Famous artist Ai Weiwei, and a well-known critic of the Communist government, was detained by Beijing forces along with hundreds of bloggers and human rights lawyers, in an attempt by the government to halt the Jasmine revolution in its tracks back in April 2011. The Chinese government was condemned by some international organisations for trying to re-draw the lines of permissible expression in China.
China is going through a power change in the Communist Party later this year, which traditionally causes heightened social tensions. The authorities will be looking closely at how the changes in power in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia take effect and whether the new leaders increase the freedoms that were so hard fought by their people. The Arab Spring has awoken in China a spirit of rebellion that the Communist Party must try hard to placate or deal with the consequences. The population of Egypt is just over 82 million, if China was to experience something similar than its 1 billion population could cause shockwaves in the global economy and profoundly affect global history.
The Arab Spring may have quietened down in recent weeks, but it remains a key example of how attempts to supress a nation can have profound economic and political consequences in the long run, and it's a lesson that the Chinese should heed.
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