Few people have been as vindicated by recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and elsewhere as the president.
Bush, that is. In remarks before before the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003, Bush noted that “sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
The foreign-policy elite responded to Bush’s freedom agenda with derision: Some believed democracy promotion to be idealistic and a faulty basis for U.S. realpolitik; others found Bush’s vision “contaminated” because they equated it with regime change in Iraq. When Bush left the scene, so too did the U.S. standard bearer for democratic reforms in autocratic states.
What a difference a crisis makes. “Egypt Proves Bush Right,” declared Newsweek on February 2. Bush’s successor, who campaigned on a platform of finding common ground with the despots in Iran, North Korea, and Syria, finds himself walking a fine line as he encourages peaceful democratic change in Egypt, Bahrain, and other regional stalwarts.
And in our hyper-connected modern era, this may be just the beginning. The leveling wind of popular dissent against autocracy and dictatorship is blowing — across North Africa, into the Gulf, and beyond. What happens if Saudi Arabia is next?
Far-fetched? The Chinese government doesn’t think so. It was reported by Reuters and Newsweek, among others, that the Chinese government restricted Egypt-related Internet searches when popular protests against Mubarak exploded late last month.
But, as usual when it comes to China, what’s really going on is rather more complicated.
News organizations in China — including the Global Times, an English-language daily linked to the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily — reported on the crisis in a fairly straightforward fashion. What the government seems to be trying to block is not news of the protests, but its citizens’ ability to do anything about it, e.g., flash mobbing or other activities facilitated by micro-blogging.
In fact, what has been written and said in China about the situation in the Middle East is at least as interesting as what has been blocked. The Global Times recently editorialized that “democracy is still far away in … Egypt. … When it comes to political systems, the Western model is only one of a few options. It takes time and effort to apply democracy to different countries, and to do so without the turmoil of revolution.”
This view — which echoes some American analysts’ criticism of the Bush freedom agenda — is that some countries just aren’t ready for democracy. It is a common defense of autocratic regimes; the regimes themselves often use it.
When visiting the White House in January, Chinese president Hu Jintao offered the same basic formulation in response to a question about human rights and democracy. Hu told reporters that “China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights. And at the same time … China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development. And a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights.”
The problem for authoritarian regimes is that it is difficult to know when the people have had enough and will no longer tolerate the argument that they are not ready for self-rule. This seems to be what’s happening in the Middle East right now, where the problem has been compounded by the economic challenges facing the region (rising food prices and an unemployment pandemic in the under-25 population).
Which is why China is so concerned. For all the Western, business-driven hype about China’s economic appeal, its own leaders understand that it is an underdeveloped country with a per capita income about the same as Tunisia’s. At any given time, there are probably about 150 million Chinese — twice the entire population of Egypt — out of work. Over a decade of non-stop government stimulus spending, by government-controlled banks through government-controlled companies, has been needed to keep economic growth at a level high enough to keep unemployment in check. After years of hyper-spending, the country is on the verge of serious inflation and, very likely, a real-estate bubble.
China’s leaders know their situation is a precarious one. While President Hu was being feted in Washington as the leader of a global power equal to the United States, Premier Wen Jaiobao told Communist Party leaders back home what he told them during the party congress in 2008 and has repeated many times since: #more#China’s economy is “unsteady, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.”
The problem for authoritarian regimes — and China is no different from Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, or Libya in this regard — is that when the public has had enough, there are too few tools available to harness or channel public energy. In Egypt, the public rejected Mubarak’s attempts to manage a political transition; the street demanded a true democratic opening. It remains to be seen if the army will provide that.
If China’s bubble economy were to burst, the pressures would be an order of magnitude worse than what is being experienced in the Middle East. But there is time for China to avoid Egypt’s fate. The United States could help by continuously encouraging China’s Communist leaders to find ways to allow for democratic expression now, before it becomes an uncontrollable imperative. It would also help if the U.S. government were to consider the true impact of its current policies, such as currency revaluation, a favorite demand of U.S. labor unions and politicians who worry that U.S. manufacturing cannot compete with cheap Chinese imports. If the U.S. had its way with China’s currency (and this is why it never will), tens of millions of Chinese workers would be out of jobs and into the street.
The lesson of Egypt, and possibly Bahrain and Yemen, is that remaining closely aligned with a regime whose fortunes turn literally overnight puts the U.S. in a compromising position and leaves us trusted by no one. The U.S. should always be on the side of people who seek to rule themselves, not on the side of rulers who seek to deny them that right. We seem ready to make that case when it comes to odious regimes in Libya and Iran, but less eager to do so in Saudi Arabia or China. We should do so gently but firmly; consistency and clarity matter.
We have no interest in shaming or embarrassing the Chinese leadership, but how they manage their own transition to democracy is something about which we should care greatly. And, in view of his recent vindication, it is worth reviewing what President Bush said in the same speech in November, 2003, about China:
“Our commitment to democracy is tested in China. That nation now has a sliver, a fragment of liberty. Yet, China’s people will eventually want their liberty pure and whole. China has discovered that economic freedom leads to national wealth. China’s leaders will also discover that freedom is indivisible — that social and religious freedom is also essential to national greatness and national dignity. Eventually, men and women who are allowed to control their own wealth will insist on controlling their own lives and their own country.”
— Therese Shaheen is chairman of the consultancy U.S. Asia International. From 2002 to 2004, she served in the State Department as chairman of the American Institute of Taiwan.