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.
A fourth difference is the well-developed ability of the Chinese government to turn domestic pressure and anger at the regime towards foreign targets. Massive riots against Japan in 2005 in Shanghai and Hangzhou were clearly facilitated, if not organized, by government officials, and all focused on the rather abstract issue of Tokyo’s gaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Beijing proved itself capable of providing convenient outlets for pent-up frustrations, but just as able to shut down the protests when they seemed to be getting out of hand. The regime has many putative excuses for engaging in this type of manipulation, from the recent contretemps over Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea to anger at U.S. military sales to Taiwan or diplomatic support for Japan in last year’s Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Senkaku Islands.
The ability of foreign actors to influence domestic events is also considerably different in China than in Egypt. Despite being an autocratic dictator, Mubarak was also an ally of the United States who received nearly $2 billion in aid per year. This gave Washington leverage, and reports made clear that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen were in regular contact with Egypt’s military, in addition to the conversations President Obama had with Mubarak. The fact that the supreme military council apparently decided Mubarak’s fate may well have been due to U.S. threats to cut off the aid upon which the military depends.
Needless to say, no such leverage exists in the Sino-U.S. relationship. Even under normal conditions, the U.S. and Chinese militaries barely speak, and political dialogue is highly formalized and kept away from any sensitive topics. Should a crisis like the one in Egypt break out, there would be no role that Washington, or any other foreign actor, could play in helping bring things to a peaceful or democratic resolution. The world would be forced to sit back and watch, just as it did back in 1989.
The final and perhaps most important difference between China and Egypt goes directly to the record of both regimes in recent decades. For all its oppression and brutality, for all its control over aspects of daily life and its refusal to cede any political power to domestic voices, the CCP has presided over one of the most dramatic economic modernization programs in history. Development in China, while uneven and likely unsustainable for the long haul, has nonetheless lifted hundreds of millions on Chinese into the middle class, modernized cities, rebuilt Chinese power, and made the country a leading actor on the world stage, admired and feared in equal measure. No such claim could be made about Mubarak’s Egypt, where rank poverty and immiseration only increased during his years and the pride of the Arab world became a second-string player to such upstarts as Syria and Iraq. For all the millions in China who seethe against the power of the state, there are equal millions who have benefited from its policies and don’t yet seem ready to try and throw the party overboard.
There are no assurances in political life, and for all the warnings about Egypt’s instability in recent years, no one could have foreseen the cascade of events that overthrew Mubarak. Similarly in China, analysts can point out all the weaknesses of the system and claim it is rotting from within; or they can stress the strengths of the CCP and PLA and presume nothing will change for generations. What is indisputable, though, is that every country develops according to its own internal logic and that dramatic, and often inspiring, events in one have nothing to do with the future of another. Those who see portents for China in Egypt’s revolt have their hearts in the right place, but they should listen to cooler heads, lest they be disappointed once again by China’s ability to confound the predictions of any so foolish as to claim to see the future.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations (Harvard University Press).