Beijing has bought itself a respite from middle class revolt

Chinese writers and activists are hopeful that the democratic wave sweeping the Middle East might pour over the world¿s largest and most powerful authoritarian state. In reality, China's leadership has little to fear.

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East Asia

Joshua Kurlantzick

As governments across North Africa have been overthrown or are seemingly near the verge of collapse, some Chinese writers and activists are hopeful that this democratic wave might sweep over the world's largest and most powerful authoritarian state. Unknown Chinese activists have anonymously posted an online manifesto calling for their own "Jasmine Revolution". Groups of protesters - even joined by the American ambassador to China - have gathered in Beijing to heed the call for revolt. The Chinese authorities, taking no chances, quickly shut down protests and apparently jailed some of the demonstrators. They have also been blocking any internet discussion of activists' "Jasmine Manifesto".

But despite Beijing's quick response, in reality China's leadership has far less to fear than Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Qaddafi. For one thing, unlike in many parts of the Middle East, China's urbanised centres haven't turned against the regime. Instead, most city residents essentially support, or at least tolerate, the regime. And why not? The government has been very, very good to them, as Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, documented in his book China's Trapped Transition.

After the 1989 Tiananmen protests, the Chinese Communist Party, recognising the power of educated urban protesters, delivered a raft of new incentives to co-opt the urban middle class. The government directed growth to urban areas, and launched other pro-middle class programmes. These included higher salaries for academics and other professionals; restrictions on rural people's housing and schools so that peasants cannot attend many of the best urban institutions; and opening the Party to membership for entrepreneurs, many of whom eagerly joined as a business networking opportunity. The Party reinforces the middle class content with the status quo by using speeches and state media to suggest that, in a democracy, total freedom of movement would allow rural peasants to swamp the cities, ruining the standard of living in wealthier urban areas.

All these incentives are reasons why Chinese city residents in polls show high appreciation of the current state of affairs. In one recent survey, nearly 90 per cent of Chinese expressed satisfaction with the current station of their nation; since these polls, conducted by telephone, are focused on urban areas, they represent more closely the views of the urban middle class.

China's leaders also are not as out of touch, isolated or brittle as some of those in the Middle East. The Communist Party may be an authoritarian regime and there is certainly plenty of corruption - one Chinese scholar estimates that corruption costs China more than $80 billion (Dh294 billion) in growth each year. Still, the leadership now is a collective one, and no single official amasses the type of enormous wealth of leaders like Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. China's collective leadership, unlike in Mao's time, also has some ability to listen to and respond to public opinion. In 2008, for example, protests in Tibet initially were met by a relatively moderate response from the central government. But angry online sentiment - the Chinese blogosphere is highly nationalist and often conservative - partly prompted a tougher crackdown, according to Chinese officials and scholars.

Perhaps most importantly, unlike much of the Middle East, China's economy is booming, and not simply because of resource extraction. In Tunisia, and then in Egypt, protests erupted after immolations by young men and women who, although they had undergraduate degrees, were unable to find work in economies that could not keep pace with growing populations. Although Chinese university graduates certainly have a tougher time finding jobs than they did several years ago, the Chinese economy continues to boom: China grew by more than 9 per cent last year, during a global economic crisis, and will likely grow at least as much this year, a rate it has kept up for roughly three decades (the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, downgraded that to 7 per cent this week). Educated young men and women still can find high-paying jobs, particularly if they are willing to move to interior cities that have been prioritised by the central government.

And, unlike in places like Egypt, foreign powers such as the United States - which has sold roughly $2 trillion in government debt to China - do not have much leverage over the People's Republic. In the early 1990s, when China remained a global pariah because of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, America had more leverage to push Beijing on human rights and democracy, and President Bill Clinton, during a visit to the country, publicly and harshly criticised China's record on rights.

Today, the story is much different. Dependent on China not only to keep the American economy propped up but also for cooperation on global issues like trade and climate change, the Obama administration has taken a much softer approach to Beijing. When Barack Obama headed to China for the first time as president in the fall of 2009, he agreed to a "press conference" with the Chinese president Hu Jintao at which the two actually took no questions, and when the American president held a town forum with Chinese students, he delivered none of the broadsides against China's rights record that his predecessor had.

Any change that happens in China in the future is going to come from domestic events, not from external pressure. But don't expect that change to happen anytime soon.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations