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.