China Is No Libya but Not Out of Danger

Forbes: Helen H. Wang

Watching the waves of demonstrations from Egypt to Libya and beyond, I couldn’t help thinking what might happen to China. There is no lack of discussions in the blogosphere about whether China would be the next Egypt or Libya. Popular views seem to suggest that China is not Egypt, that most people in China are happy since their lives have been dramatically improved in recent years, and they are not paying attention to what’s happening in the Arabic world because they are busy with getting on with their own lives.

If the average Chinese has not paid enough attention to what is happening in Africa, the Chinese government certainly has. Last Saturday, Chinese president Hu Jintao called for tighter government control of the Internet. Discussions of Egypt are blocked in China’s cyberspace. When an anonymous call for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China was posted on the U.S.-based Chinese language website Boxun, an overwhelming number of Chinese security officials showed up at the protest locations for fear of large demonstrations and chaos.

The Chinese government’s adamancy to maintain social stability revealed how unstable China may be. As government official Chen Jiping told Reuters, “Our country is in a period of magnified conflicts within the populace, high crime rates and complex struggle against foes.”

Yes, China is not Egypt. Although it is still under one-party rule, China does not have dictators such as Mubarak who ruled Egypt for over 30 years. Nor does China have a lunatic ruler like Gadhafi. Since 1992, China’s leadership has transferred power from one cabinet to another smoothly without power struggles. President Hu Jintao rules by consensus in China’s 9-person politburo.

In the past three decades, China’s phenomenal economic growth lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and created a middle class that supports what the government has done. Many believe that the government is improving and has become more open. They understand that China is a big country with complex problems, and they are willing to give the government some time.  Some people told me that they couldn’t care less about democracy because they have all the freedom they want and have more opportunities than they can pay attention to.

However, the last few years saw a regression in the government’s openness. Since 2008, the Chinese government has increasingly censored the Internet, detained dissidents, and disbarred lawyers who are actively involved in civil rights and corruption cases.

If the government thinks the tightened control will help maintain stability, it will prove to be the opposite. The demonstrations in the Middle East provide a clear case that the more repressive the regime, the more chaos and protests it will brew.

Instead of tightening control, the Chinese government should address the root problems of discontent, such as by fighting corruption and inflation, and create conditions that allow upward mobility.

I hope China will not be the next Libya. A stable China is not only in the interest of the Chinese people, but also in the interest of the people of the world. China has become so interrelated and interconnected to the rest of the world. Foreign direct investment reached $106 billion in the end of 2010. Many Western companies are betting on the Chinese market for their revenue growth, especially since their home markets stagnated during the recession.

Perhaps now is the time for the Chinese government to let go of control. A nation cannot be truly prosperous if its people cannot freely express themselves. The Chinese people know that, as many have told me, “the trend of democracy is unstoppable.” The Chinese government should know it too.

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Egypt Highlights

There are many things to see in Cairo – the pyramids, the museums, the mosques, etc. Here are a few highlights that mark the classics of Cairo:

Copyright 2007 Helen Wang

The Egyptian Museum is a must-see for anyone who visits Egypt for the first time. It exhibits more than 120,000 artifacts throughout history. The most impressive exhibition is the items from King Tut’s tomb, which is the most complete pharaonic tomb ever found. Through viewing the burial treasures, I got a glimpse of Egypt’s glorious ancient civilization. Continue reading

Chinese Tourists and Cars Abroad

When I traveled abroad ten or fifteen years ago, I hardly met any Chinese who were traveling as a tourist. Wherever I went, people would point to me and say: “Japanese! Japanese!”

Things are very different now. I have met many Chinese tourists in Egypt during my short stay in Cairo and Luxor. Our tour guide Ali told me, in the last two years, the number of Chinese travelers exploded. The Chinese tourists have become the second largest tourist group in Egypt, with approximately 400,000 to 500,000 people each year (Russia is the No. 1 with about 1 million tourists in Egypt last year). And this is just the beginning. As the affluent Chinese middle class grows, more and more people can afford to travel abroad. Now, wherever I go, people would greet me: “Ni Hao!”

Another interesting thing is that Chinese cars are becoming more and more popular in Egypt. According to an Egyptian newspaper, “20 Chinese auto companies have sold their vehicles in the Egyptian market since 2003.” Compared with the Western auto makers, Chinese cars have relatively lower prices, but also good quality. I have seen the tour buses made in China and labeled “Yutong” (??) running all over the tourist attraction spots in Cairo. I was also told that a Chinese-run travel agency “Solar Empire” (????) is gaining popularity in Egypt.

We visited the famous Khan al Kahlili in Cairo – the biggest bazaar (marketplace) in the Middle East. It sells souvenirs, jewelries, textiles, gold, silver, and many other things. Ali told me that all the souvenirs, scarves and shawls are made in China. But the Egyptian dealers changed labels to “Made in Egypt” to attract the tourists.

In addition to all the merchandises made in China, Chinese tourists and Chinese cars are the first signs I have witnessed of China’s rising presence in the world.

In Awe of the Pyramids

Before the time of time immemorial, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt built Pyramids as the tombs for their afterlife and the symbols of their majesty. After five thousand years, dynasties rise and fall, rulers come and go, but the Pyramids at Giza are still standing as the Nile forever flows.

Copyright 2007 Helen Wang

Standing in front of The Great Pyramid, I am completely in awe. It is 455 feet tall, and was the highest building in the world until 19th century. It was built with more than 3 million blocks of stone, with the heaviest ones weighing 15 tons. It took more than 100,000 laborers for twenty years to finish. It is literally a manmade mountain.

Copyright 2007 Helen Wang

Local Egyptians are very friendly. Sometimes they are too “friendly” – they try to trick you to buy souvenirs or ask for baksheesh (tipping). The children I met at the Great Pyramid flocked to me to say “hello,” and want their photos taken.

Copyright 2007 Helen Wang

Riding a camel in the desert was absolutely a thrill and a lot of fun! It costs $4 for ten minute camel ride. Someone told me that it could be risky if you let the camel go too far into the desert, because the Egyptian guides could ask for as much as $100 (and if you don’t agree, they would threaten not to let the camel return).

Copyright 2007 Helen Wang

In front of the second Pyramid is The Sphinx with a royal headdress and human face, faithfully guarding the Pyramids. Standing sixty-six feet tall, it’s tiny compared with the mighty pyramids around it. This is the oldest sphinx found in Egypt, dating back 2,500 BC.

Copyright 2007 Helen Wang

Although I have seen the picture of the Sphinx many times, I was still astonished by its eminence. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was in a playful mood. So, with the right angle, I kissed the Sphinx!

Copyright 2007 Helen Wang

The evening’s Sound and Light show was really amazing. In about an hour, the five thousand years of Egypt’s history and ancient civilization were revealed as a grandstand play in front of my eyes, leaving me with much to wonder and ponder for the following days….

Copyright 2007 Helen Wang