The new favorite pastime of the Chinese blogger community has become, in the last few weeks, to compare China to Egypt and Tunisia. It’s certainly a topic that’s been heavy in my mind the last couple of weeks, and it’s been fascinating to read just how widely the analysis seems to vary, and to defy easy summary.
I was lucky to attend a hearing hosted by the Congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing a couple of weeks ago which highlighted to me, more than I had previously aware, of just how much domestic anger is bubbling under the surface in some parts of the country. Small, localized demonstrations or protests, or “mass incidents,” as the government calls them, have been ballooning in number over the past decade, and already number over 100,000 every year. Elizabeth Economy from the Council on Foreign Relations gave a vivid example:
“In one case in July 2010 for example, officials in Gangkou, Jiangxi Province, offered to relocate villagers away from a heavily polluted site that had sickened them but provided only minimal compensation. When police beat two female petitioners into a coma, thousands of angry citizens used bricks and stones to smash windows and overturn police cars”
Events often start as small personal grievances, inspired by public health hazards due to environmental pollution, by forced evictions, by unfair labor practices, by official corruption, or any of the other dozen serious complaints of China’s underprivileged. Ham-handed management by the police can easily turn one family’s protest into a village-wide riot. Without a doubt, then, public dissatisfaction is growing, and is leading a disenfranchised population, with no open or transparent way to redress grievances against the government, to act out violently.
However, many scholars and journalists point out that China differs from Egypt in one fundamental capacity: the Chinese government’s uncompromising pursuit of economic growth has raised the living standard of vast sectors of the population and garnered overall allegiance from the all-important growing middle class. Egypt’s economy has grown significantly over the last ten years as well. However, as Evan Osnos summarizes,
“Egypt and Tunisia were vulnerable to unrest not because their economies were ailing, but precisely because their economies had improved in recent years, which only accentuated how far the economic gains were outpacing political liberalization.”
Egypt and Tunisia’s middle class turned against the government because “rising expectations” outstripped the ability of a growing (though increasingly corrupt—not so different from China) economy to deliver on those expectations. Consider a series of public opinion surveys conducted in Egypt by Gallup in the years before the revolution, which found that levels of “life satisfaction and optimism” in Egypt were as low as those in the truly stagnating Palestine. Young people and the middle class, particularly those who expected to do well, were disappointed with their share of the economic growth.
Certainly the economic situation in China is quite different. Economic growth there has been not simply strong, but mind-blowingly fast, and without a doubt has raised the living standards of a vast percentage of the population in the last several decades. What is perhaps more important, though, is that the population as a whole perceives that increasing economic prosperity is widespread and is meeting an increasing number of their needs. Harvard Sociologist Martin Whyte, who testified at the same hearing, shared the results of a fascinating public opinion survey on perceptions of economic inequality in China. His research found that, while a majority of people in China recognize the widening income gap (now the largest of any low to middle-income country in the world), they tend to attribute prosperity differences to differences in talent and effort, and remain optimistic about their own chance to get ahead eventually. Even Chinese who have garnered only modest economic gains in recent years trust that their lives, too, will continue to get better under the current regime.
My understanding is that these factors—public satisfaction over domestic, particularly economic, conditions—make up one half of the debate over continued domestic stability in China. I’ve managed to fill up more space already than I intended to, so the other half—government success at maintaining domestic control—will have to wait for another post.