China isn’t ripe for a Jasmine Revolution

by Pamela Cox, Jonathan Holslag, and Frank Ching

HONG KONG — The so-called Jasmine Revolution sweeping North Africa and the Mideast has caught the world’s attention and there are now attempts to spread the flames to China as well. But is China ripe for a Jasmine Revolution? Unlike the countries in the Arab world experiencing unrest, China has gone through more than 30 years of rapid economic growth that have lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty.

A 22-nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey made public last June showed that while most people were unhappy with the direction of their country, China was an exception. “Only in China,” the survey reported, “does an overwhelming portion of the population (87 percent) express satisfaction with national conditions.”

Certainly, the common assumption is that as long as the government keeps delivering growth, the Communist Party will remain in power.

One serious problem is growing inequality of wealth. However, a leading sociologist, Martin K. Whyte of Harvard University who has done more than a decade of research into the issue, said last week that most Chinese citizens accept the current order as “more fair than unfair and as providing ample chances for the industrious and ambitious to raise their living standards and improve the lot of their families.”

However, professor Whyte, who gave testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission last Friday, acknowledged that there has been a rising tide of social protests in China, which he attributes to abuses of power and other procedural injustice issues rather than to an unequal distribution of wealth.

Murray Scot Tanner, a China security analyst at CNA, pointed out that “unrest in China has continued rising for nearly two decades with little or no break.”

The grievances, he said, include illegal land seizures, forced evictions and demolitions, withheld wages and pensions (often accompanied by unannounced factory closures), illegal pollution of air, water and farmland, and the refusal of local authorities to accept or honor citizen petitions.

Another scholar, Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations, traced the roots of protest in China to a systemic weakness in the country’s governance structure.

These include a lack of transparency and official accountability, which cause otherwise manageable issues such as inflation, forced relocation, environmental pollution and corruption to transform into large-scale protests.

Clearly, despite the country’s growing wealth, China’s people are beset by many problems that do not lend themselves to easy solutions.

Hukon Huang, former World Bank director for China who is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stressed that “venting one’s frustrations in ways that are perceived to be taken seriously by the authorities are as important as actually resolving an issue.”

Huang has put his finger on a major problem. The Chinese authorities instinctively choose repression when confronted with any problem: lock up people, censor their writings, block the Internet, do anything possible not to allow their voices to be heard. And yet, sometimes, people will be satisfied if they are allowed to vent their frustrations. Simply allowing an issue to be publicly discussed will go a long way to its resolution.

But the leaders in Beijing are so insecure that they will not allow any ventilation of grievances. Of course, substantial reforms will be needed to resolve issues. But reforms cannot even begin if grievances cannot be articulated.

Organizers of the Jasmine protests called for rallies across the country every Sunday at 2 p.m. beginning Feb. 20, with participants going to designated centralized locations simply to stroll, watch or pretend to pass by without necessarily doing anything that is overtly political.

However, because their online messages on websites hosted overseas are immediately deleted when posted within China, few people actually known about such a call for defiance of the Communist authorities.

Even so, the authorities are taking no chances. Before the first scheduled protest in Beijing, security police swooped down and detained 100 activists, including five lawyers.

And last Sunday, the authorities went even further. Boarding was put up outside the Wangfujing McDonald’s — the designated protest site — because of “road repairs.” Security police and attack dogs were deployed and street cleaning machines constantly sprayed water on both sides of the street, making any gathering of people impossible.

Are all these steps really necessary? Does the Chinese government really believe that a handful of people strolling on Wangfujing could result in its overthrow? If so, then maybe China is much more vulnerable than it would appear to be on the surface.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.