Commentary: Beijing’s Response to Egypt’s Upheaval

By webadmin on 08:57 am Feb 03, 2011
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Willy Lam

Beijing is taking no chances regarding the possible impact that the “color revolutions” raging in North Africa and Middle East may have on China.

While news about the dramatic events in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and surrounding regions can still be found in the state media, all Chinese editors have been told by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Propaganda Department that they can only use news dispatches by the official Xinhua News Agency. Moreover, Netizens and bloggers are not allowed to discuss Egypt in the Chinese equivalents of Facebook or Twitter. Egypt-related searches on various micro-blogs, such as Sina.com, Netease.com and Weibo have produced either no results or error messages.

The Hu Jintao administration has attempted to divert public attention by focusing on the speed and efficiency with which Beijing dispatched chartered flights to send home hundreds of Chinese (including tourists from Hong Kong) stranded in various Egyptian cities.

An editorial in the official Global Times pointed out that “Western-style” institutions and norms ill-suited the people of Africa and the Middle East.  “Color revolutions will not bring about real democracy,” said the Times, which is a subsidiary of People’s Daily (Global Times, January 30).

Other academics and experts have focused on the fact that given the quasi-alliance relationship between Egypt and the United States, upheaval in Egypt will only spell trouble for Washington’s interests in the Middle East (China Review News, January 30). For instance, Shanghai-based international relations expert Li Shimo noted that if real elections were to take place in Egypt and neighboring countries, the ballot box could produce Muslim leaders who would not only spurn U.S.-style democracy but also threaten America’s oil supplies.

To forestall anti-government riots in China, the CCP leadership has the past several weeks spotlighted the “close-to-the-masses” persona of senior cadres. Premier Wen Jiabao visited the Bureau of Letters and Complaints to talk to petitioners who have grievances against governments of different levels (Xinhua News Agency, January 25). It was the first time that a senior official had ever talked to petitioners, who are regularly harassed and even imprisoned by police and state-security personnel.

Official newspapers have spotlighted substantial boosts in expenditure on social welfare in the government’s newly published 12th Five Year Plan (2011 to 2015). On top of the 22.8 percent increase in minimum wages across China last year, different cities have already announced salary hikes of around 15 percent to help workers weather fast-rising living costs. While the official CPI jumped 4.6 percent in December 2010, most Chinese economists reckon that food prices alone have gone up by at least 10 percent the past year (Xinhua News Agency, January 20; Global Times, January 26). Partly owing to poor weather conditions nationwide, the government will be hard put to tackle the spiraling prices of rice and wheat, vegetables and meat.

Given that inflation is set to rage through 2011—and that the rich-poor gap in China will yawn even wider—the possibility of a people power-style uprising cannot be discounted. And this is why the Hu leadership, which is preparing for a major power transition slated for the 18th CCP Congress next year, will be pulling out all the stops to crack down on destabilizing and “disharmonious” elements in Chinese society.

Given Beijing’s belief that color revolutions are the handiwork of Western governments, police and state-security personnel will likely put more pressure on Chinese dissidents and NGOs that maintain contact with American and European organizations.

Jamestown Foundation

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He has worked in senior editorial positions in international media including Asiaweek newsmagazine, South China Morning Post, and the Asia-Pacific Headquarters of CNN. He is the author of five books on China, including the recently published “Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges.” Lam is an Adjunct Professor of China studies at Akita International University, Japan, and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.