It has now been two years since the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, provided the spark that set the Arab world aflame. A wave of protests spread throughout the region in quick succession and led to the overthrow of long ruling autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, and possibly Syria.
The collapse of regimes like Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt, which many considered “an exemplar of…durable authoritarianism” was a salient reminder to many that such revolutions are “inherently unpredictable.” Before long some began to speculate that the protest movements might spread to authoritarian states outside the Arab world, including China. Indeed, the Chinese government was among those that feared the unrest would spread to China because, as one observer noted, China faced the same kind of “social and political tensions caused by rising inequality, injustice, and corruption” that plagued much of the Arab world on the eve of the uprisings.
Alas it was not to be as the Chinese government has proven far more durable than many of its counterparts in the Arab world. This inevitably raises the question of what factors differentiated the Chinese government from its Arab counterparts in places like Egypt?
Fortunately,in the more than two years since Mubarak fell, a number of theories have been advanced to explain the Arab Spring.
One set of explanations has centered on social and economic drivers. According to this reasoning, unrest in the region was driven by a highly discontented and mobilized society. Youth unemployment and official corruption enraged citizens throughout much of the Arab world and the diffusion of new communications technologies, particularly social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, enabled these individuals to channel these grievances into effective anti-regime collective action.
One shortcoming of this explanation is that the same sources of discontent and social media websites are available throughout the developing world, but successful revolutions are rare. In China, for example, official statistics suggest youth unemployment is low, but independent research has found that the problem may be large and growing, particularly among the type of young, urban and highly educated groups who have spearheaded many revolutions historically. Meanwhile, cross-national measures of corruption place China squarely between Tunisia and Egypt. Finally, Internet penetration rates also place China shoulder-to-shoulder with Tunisia and Egypt, and social media has increasingly appeared as a critical tool for mobilizing Chinese protestors in frequent “mass incidents,” and spreading news of sensitive topics, such as official corruption and public health threats posed by environmental pollution.