SHANGHAI – China’s state-run media hasn’t been afraid to broadcast news and analysis about the upheaval in Ukraine. Since early December, in fact, the Chinese media have been unflinching and mostly unconstrained in their effort to report the causes of the protests, as well as the potential consequences for the Ukrainian people and government. The journalistic enterprise is well served by this commitment to the truth. Apparently, so is the ruling Communist Party, which views unrest anywhere in the world as a teaching moment for those who might clamor for more rapid reforms in China.
This perspective was concisely expressed last week in an unsigned editorial published by the Global Times, an offshoot of the People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece. Unlike its often cryptic masters, the Global Times is unswervingly direct in its opinions, which are widely assumed to reflect those of China’s more hawkish military and foreign-policy minds, among others.
The editorial wasn’t hawkish, but it was instructive, especially for those wondering why China’s state media have devoted so much coverage to Ukraine: “Generally among countries which suddenly transform into Western-style democracy, it’s the small countries, single-ethnicity countries, and single-religion countries which are likely to succeed. Meanwhile, complex, multi-ethnic societies with multiple religions will struggle to manage the change.”
Global Times readers don’t need to be reminded that China is a big, multi-ethnic country in which multiple religions currently coexist. But in case they aren’t capable of drawing the correct parallels, the editors spell them out: “The storms outside are a repeated warning that China’s democratic reform must proceed step-by-step and avoid the common mistakes of our naive predecessors. If China were to undergo a rapid transition to Western-style democracy, there’s a decent chance that the country would fall apart and many areas would descend into unrest.”
This is a familiar mantra, broadcast furiously during the 2011 Arab Spring and, in particular, the Egyptian uprising against Hosni Mubarak’s government. (It’s also made its way into recent coverage of political unrest in Thailand.) In 2011, just as now, Chinese coverage of the unrest, as well as its causes and ostensibly democratic goals, was extensive. Likewise, China’s more influential editorial pages carefully interpreted the unrest to support its government’s preferred narrative.
For example, in the midst of the Egyptian uprising, the People’s Daily ran an editorial, “Stability, the Correct Choice for Egypt,” in which it observed: “Mubarak’s fall and the subsequent turmoil are a reminder that a falling boulder accelerates and anything can happen in a country that loses order.”
Likewise, last week, when reporters asked a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman to comment on the Ukrainian upheaval, she offered up China’s wish that the parties would “resolve their differences via dialogue and restore social order at an early date.”
Theoretically, the propaganda value of violent political upheaval in other countries — especially upheaval that appears to carry a human and economic price — is considerable.
In practice, though, how effective the message is depends upon how well it resonates with the Chinese public’s current fears and aspirations. Without statistically sound means of measuring public opinion, there’s really no way to judge.
Certainly there are many millions of Chinese — especially those over the age of 50 — who have no desire to return to the mid-century upheavals (famine, purges and the Cultural Revolution, to name just the lowlights) that define so much of Chinese contemporary history. Likewise, few are the number of younger, mortgage-owning Chinese willing to risk their hard-won assets to fight a ruling party they may think is corrupt, but which has — all things considered — improved the country’s material status over the last three decades. Feelings, in other words, will be mixed.
At the Tencent Internet portal, an online poll placed at the end of a long article explaining (quite well) the causes of the Ukrainian upheaval asks: “Are you optimistic about the future situation in the Ukraine?” Of the roughly 36,000 who had answered as of midafternoon on Tuesday, only 26.8 percent had responded in the affirmative. It’s not the most reliable indicator, but it’s reflective of an online environment where few bloggers and microbloggers are salivating for a Chinese version of what’s happening in Kiev’s streets — especially when the outcome remains so uncertain.
“It’s foolish to believe the unrest is a victory for the people,” tweeted a Sina Weibo microblogger on Sunday. “Ten years ago, the same thing happened in the Ukraine. Ten years later, everything goes back to the starting point.” China’s stability- minded Communist Party is unlikely to disagree.
Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in Shanghai and the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMinter