Beijing’s likely lesson? Ratchet up repression

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — China, which has been obsessed with political stability ever since it called out its army to crush a massive albeit peaceful protest in Beijing 22 years ago, is likely to step up repressive tactics against its population in the wake of the toppling of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of demonstrations.

In 1989, the uprising in Tiananmen Square and around the country went on for seven weeks while the Chinese government refused to accept petitions from the student leaders and ended with a military crackdown that saw hundreds if not thousands of deaths and a manhunt that went on for years for those who had taken part in the protests.

Even today, those who managed to escape the country are not allowed to return on pain of imprisonment.

Of course, Arab protesters were able to make use of technology that the 1989 activists could not dream of — the Internet and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

But China has also developed technological expertise and has shown that it is able to control the Internet and, if necessary, shut it down as it did in Xinjiang for 10 months after riots in July 2009.

Throughout the Egyptian protests, the Chinese government was careful to control information available to the public. Independent reports were forbidden and the media was told to only use reports by the official news agency, Xinhua.

And Xinhua, in its dispatches, emphasized not the democratic aspirations of the protesters but rather warned against the country falling into chaos.

Ironically, the United States, which welcomed Mubarak’s departure, has more to lose from instability in Egypt than China. After all, Egypt has been one of America’s most important partners in the Mideast and Washington’s quest for a peaceful solution between the Arabs and the Israelis.

However, the U.S. evidently decided that supporting the popular demand for democracy was the right thing to do, even at the risk of accepting a degree of destabilization.

China, however, which also has good relations with Egypt, clearly preferred Mubarak to stay, identifying its interests with those of the Egyptian leader, who was beset by demonstrators demanding his resignation. At a time when the U.S. and other countries were calling on Mubarak to heed the voices of his people and step down for the good of the country, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman expressed understanding and support for “Egypt’s efforts to maintain social stability and restore normal order” and insisted that “the affairs of Egypt should be decided by itself independently without intervention from the outside.”

After the Mubarak resignation, the spokesman emphasized the early restoration of “national stability and social order,” without any mention of the Egyptian people’s desire for democracy. Ding Gang, a senior editor with the official People’s Daily newspaper, wrote a commentary in which he said that while the Western media focused on democracy and free elections, the country’s main problem was the economy and “Western supporters of the Egyptian protests have no ability to find jobs for Egyptians and Tunisians.” He concluded: “If the Egyptians and Tunisians establish a democracy but do not get more job skills and more competitiveness, I am afraid that anyone can guess what the outcome will be.”

These comments are not necessarily misguided. The economy is certainly important. But democracy is not the cause of a country’s economic backwardness, as too many Chinese commentators try to suggest. On the eve of Mubarak’s resignation, a Xinhua dispatch emphasized the “crucial” role of the military. It quoted the Supreme Council of Egypt’s armed forces as saying in a statement that the council would consider “what procedures and measures that may be taken to protect the nation and aspirations of Egyptian people.”

Such an independent position for the military is unimaginable in China, where the People’s Liberation Army is directly under the Communist Party and is not part of the government. The recent events in Egypt mean that Chinese leaders are unlikely to heed calls for greater normalization of the country by making the military part of the government rather than a component of the party. After 61 years in power, it seems that China’s Communist Party is still so insecure and so distrustful of its people that it insists on keeping an iron grip on the armed forces in order to cow its own people.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.