While it may be comforting to read in Hosni Mubarak’s resignation the universal forces of people power and democratization, pundits who are beginning to contemplate breathlessly whether Egypt’s revolution presages the fall of the Chinese Communist party need to rein in their enthusiasm. Not only is Egypt itself a long way from becoming a real democracy, but the differences between the Land of the Pharaohs and the Middle Kingdom are so vast as to make any meaningful analysis useless.
Yes, both have been run by a small, oligarchic group that has repressed the masses for decades. Both have imprisoned critics of the regime and played a byzantine game of engaging both the liberal West and authoritarian regimes around the world. And both have used ideology in pursuit of often secular goals. Moreover, the major protests in both countries — Tahrir and Tiananmen — were spearheaded by youth. Yet most of the relevant similarities end there, and the factors differentiating China from Egypt are profound.
The first factor is that at Tiananmen in 1989, the People’s Liberation Army — unlike Egyptian forces at Tahrir — did not hesitate to attack their fellow citizens, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of students and supporters when ordered by their political masters. In the intervening two decades, there is no evidence that the PLA has become any less supportive of the Communist party. Perhaps the Egyptian military decided it could hang on to its perquisites best by nudging Mubarak out the door, but the PLA must deal not just with one man but with an entire party that can’t be dismissed from power as easily. That could change, but for now, the Chinese military seems, if anything, to have identified itself more fully than ever with the legitimacy of the current regime, even as younger and more nationalistic elements in the PLA look to expand the military’s power relative to the party.
A second differentiating factor is the connected issue of political will. The Chinese regime made clear in 1989 that it would not be moved by more than 100,000 protesters massing for seven weeks in the center of Beijing, a period nearly three times as long as Egypt’s 18 days of rage. Given the CCP’s willingness to brook international condemnation just last year by jailing Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, the evidence suggests that Hu Jintao and his oligarchy have not wavered from the line taken by former paramounts Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng. More pertinent, the fact that Beijing has censored almost all news from Egypt the past three weeks shows its unwillingness to even entertain the idea of letting its people learn about the protests, as well as its nervousness over what such knowledge could lead to.
Third, size matters. The few thousands rioting in Alexandria and Egypt represented a small fraction of Egypt’s total population, yet it was enough to force political decisions by Mubarak and the military. In a country more than 15 times as large, the same calculations may not hold. China’s 1.3 billion people dwarf Egypt’s 83 million, and the state is able to isolate crowds even in the hundreds of thousands. Moreover, the regime has been suppressing thousands of riots each year for the past decade, with some estimates putting the number of rural uprisings as high as 90,000 in 2005. With Beijing continuing to have an overwhelming police and security-force presence, most dissatisfaction with the regime plays out in remote areas far from major urban centers.