Crouching tiger, hidden hegemon

Arab revolutions will prompt minor reform in China

The recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have highlighted the stranglehold many authoritarian regimes around the world have on their populations. The Arab revolutions have alarmed China in particular, and the world’s most populous state has sought to limit the Chinese people’s exposure to the destabilising effects of the “people’s revolutions” in authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya.

2011 has proved an eventful geo-political year thus far, and in a time of transitional turmoil sweeping across the Maghreb, China has sought to tighten its already fierce grasp on its citizens’ freedoms. In spite of significant domestic interest in the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt in particular, the Chinese authorities introduced new Internet firewalls that have limited the ability to access any sites containing information on the revolts. Indeed, when calls went out for a copycat ‘Jasmine revolution’ in China, the establishment moved quickly to quell any dissent, employing disproportionate force to crush opposition to Communist Party rule. President Hu Jintao even called for stricter controls on the Internet “to guide public opinion” and to “solve prominent problems which might harm the harmony and stability of...society”.

The Communist Party has in recent years appeared increasingly disjointed, with fractures in unity appearing between the civilian leaders of the party and generals in charge of the army. Before Hu’s arrival in Washington on a state visit in January, a New York Times article questioned the Chinese president's authority over a wide range of controversial issues, including China's exchange rate policy, its trade barriers, and its influence over North Korea. Hu’s remarks on his US visit about the need “to do more” about human rights in China were not received well by Chinese authorities, who censored his remarks on live national television. This issue was compounded when US Defence Secretary Robert Gates visited China in an official capacity, and officials conducted an unusually public test flight of its new stealth fighter, an apparently provocative action. The affront was compounded when it became clear that Hu had no knowledge of the test.

Debate is currently raging within the party itself as to how to exercise the country’s newfound economic (and soon to be military) power. Reformers in the fold have been drowned out by the nativist movement among the leadership, which mistrusts an American-led world order. The resulting ambiguity of who controls the military is thus a great concern for states such as the US, which has in recent months witnessed an increase in Chinese military spending. The US is trying to avoid being pulled into a Cold War situation, whereby China competes for influence of its neighbouring states. The country’s ‘One China’ policy is still a major flashpoint, with autonomy struggles in Taiwan and Tibet only emphasising the insecurity that underlies the party’s resolute position.

The tension within the Communist Party itself has been exacerbated by recent announcements by senior party officials that seemingly contradict each other. Whilst Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has called for controlled democratic reforms to be introduced in China, another senior Party official, Wu Bangguo, has publicly ruled out China ever adopting multi-party democracy or other Western-style reforms. Conservatives in the party argue for caution in such matters, but there is also a pragmatic argument for change: China’s vast economic gains in recent years could be imperilled by a failure to somewhat relinquish the party’s ubiquitous hold.

However, the Chinese authorities are not entirely unaware of the need for reform, and understand the significant role that such even slight adjustments can play in securing their hold on power. For the past 30 years, China has been introducing reforms (albeit at a snail’s pace) that have successfully limited any bona fide challenges to the Communist Party’s authority. As China acquires more economic influence, it will find itself in the position of having to take on more responsibility for global peace and stability. It will also need to adjust its political governance to maintain its economic power, similar to the way many Asian giants found the need to match their rising economic dominance with democratic reforms.

Public feelings of discontent are igniting across the countryside due to the government’s harsh treatment of dissenting citizens, and not only in contested regions such as Tibet. Both Wen and Hu are scheduled to step down from control of the Communist Party in 2012. Such a change in leadership will mimic transfers of power of previous years, where small reforms will be introduced to placate a populace that feels empowered by the country’s growing economic strength. Xi Jinping, Hu’s touted replacement and part of the ‘inner circle’ of approximately 100 people who constitute China’s leadership, is expected by most analysts to implement minor reforms as he is considered more open to the process than Hu ever demonstrated. Indeed, Hu's statement in the US opining on the need for China to do more in respect of human rights was seen by some, including hardliners, as an attempt to prepare China for further reforms under Xi.

The increasingly unstable global political climate, encapsulated by the Arab revolutions, will serve to highlight the Chinese mechanism that is activated during a change of leadership, and that ultimately sees minor reforms implemented for the sake of internal stability. Just how far these reforms will extend remains to be seen, although the adoption of ‘Western’ liberal democracy seems to be a goal that Chinese activists will only see realised in generations to come.

By Lyndsey Duff

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the IGD.

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