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Police officers break up a protest in front of the Peace Cinema in Shanghai on Feb. 20, 2011. Protesters gathered in central Beijing and Shanghai on Sunday after calls spread online across China urging pro-democracy gatherings inspired by protest rallies across the Middle East. (CARLOS BARRIA/Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Police officers break up a protest in front of the Peace Cinema in Shanghai on Feb. 20, 2011. Protesters gathered in central Beijing and Shanghai on Sunday after calls spread online across China urging pro-democracy gatherings inspired by protest rallies across the Middle East. (CARLOS BARRIA/Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Could Mideast revolutions spread to China? Add to ...

That's not the whole story, of course. The impressive macroeconomic figures hide the fact that many of China's poor - while undeniably better off than they were two decades ago - have nonetheless found it impossible to climb the social ladder. In fact, the gap between China's increasingly modern cities and a countryside that in some places hasn't changed much since the 19th century is widening by the year.

The Global Times newspaper, which is run by the Communist Party, reported that the country's Gini co-efficient (a measure of income inequality) passed the "warning line" of 0.4 a decade ago and is now nearing 0.5, a level substantially worse than in either Egypt or Tunisia.

Social injustice is also as big an issue here as in the Arab world, as evidenced by the cartoon parable of the rabbits and the tigers, and the quick move by the authorities to censor the video and its references to tainted baby milk scandals, forced home demolitions and other sources of popular anger.

In 2005, there were 87,000 "mass incidents" - Chinese bureaucratese for a public protest or strike - around the country. Since then, the government has either stopped counting or stopped publishing the figure, almost definitely the latter. The number itself was likely seen as potentially inflammatory.



Authoritarian idol

And that's the other reason Hu Jintao's China isn't Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. While Mr. Mubarak's National Democratic Party was corrupt, decaying and out of touch with the country's angry young population, the Communist Party of China is constantly analyzing threats, real and imagined, to its own rule and fine-tuning its response.

Gene Sharp, the American academic who devised a how-to handbook for non-violent revolutions that has now been used to bring down an impressive list of autocrats and dictators (from Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 to Mr. Mubarak), wrote that a key to shattering an authoritarian regime is to pick away at what he called its "pillars of support," including the bureaucracy, the media and the security services.

When I visited Egypt five years ago (and wrote an overly optimistic report about the revolution I thought was imminent then), I could see that the pillars were already crumbling. Large segments of the judiciary, the press and the public were in open rebellion against the regime, though Mr. Mubarak and his party seemed blind to the danger this might cause them. The same could be said for many of the regimes now under threat across the Arab world.



The Mubarak regime's failure to anticipate new threats left it entirely reliant on its security services. And while the police proved loyal, the army quickly read the way the wind was blowing and stood aside to allow the anti-Mubarak protests to continue.

The leaders of the Communist Party of China, conversely, still have their hands firmly on all key levers of power. Though the party makes a show out of holding some village-level votes, an opposition movement such as Mr. Nour's Al-Ghad party has never been allowed to form, and nothing resembling a national election has ever been held.

Egypt's protests were called leaderless, but in fact many established opposition groups took part, even if they still don't agree on what should come next. In China, there's hardly an opposition to speak of, only a clutch of brave dissidents, many of whom spend their time moving between prison and other forms of "administrative detention."

China's media are more open than ever before, with some outlets constantly pushing at the boundaries of what can be said, but on sensitive matters even the most rebellious editor knows she must toe the party line or risk being shut down. The instructions from above on how to cover the unrest in the Middle East, for instance, couldn't have been clearer: "For the disturbances in Egypt, media across the nation must use copy circulated from Xinhua [the official government news agency] Websites are to strengthen [monitoring]of posts, forums, blogs, and particularly posts on microblogs. Our bureaus will forcibly shut down websites that are lax in monitoring," read a directive from the State Council Information Office that was obtained by the China Digital Times, a website run by faculty and students at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley.



The Great Firewall

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