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.
Many academics have made the case that the quality of authoritarian rule in Egypt, Tunisia and other toppled dictatorships has lagged behind that in China, causing a breakdown in the former but not the latter. Beijing has developed crack internal security forces for dispersing crowds and constructed its regime around a hegemonic, well-established political party. While these explanations have merit, researchers had identified similar authoritarian support in the Arab world immediately before the turbulent year of 2011. One key to the resilience of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt were their “robust” security forces, which were well-trained and armed – thanks in part to generous American support – and supposedly fiercely loyal to the regime.
Meanwhile, Mubarak and Ben Ali were carefully institutionalizing their regimes by constructing hegemonic political parties and skillfully using nominally democratic elections and legislatures to maintain regime cohesion and co-opt potential challengers. Meanwhile, in China, presumed to be bolstered by more effective institutions, public scandals surrounding high-ranking leaders, such as the wealth of Wen Jiabao’s family or the dramatic fall of Bo Xilai, and the malfeasance and corruption of middle and low-ranking officials, reveal that politics within the CCP may not be as orderly, managed and predictable as once imagined.
But, of course, the Chinese regime has not collapsed and does not seem to be in its death throes. This is puzzling in some respects, because the country experiences annual protests that reportedly topped 180,000 as recently as 2010. Clearly popular discontent is high and Chinese citizens participate in contentious politics in large numbers, but these remain mostly localized affairs targeted at local issues, such as corrupt, low-ranking officials who engage in land grabs. Aside from the June 4 incident of 1989, they have not transformed into protest movements coordinated on a national scale and positioned against the central government itself, as appeared rapidly in Tunis and Egypt’s Tahrir square.
So why have Chinese citizens trended towards localized protests rather than the national protest movements seen in the Arab spring? As discussed in an important body of research, one source of this difference is linked to the structure of the state itself. In China, unlike most autocracies – including Mubarak’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia—the state is highly decentralized. Local governments are given a substantial level of autonomy over development policies as well as social management – decisions related to dealing with popular challengers through repression or alternatively, the extension of concessions.
Since local authorities make decisions over the carrots and sticks used to address the demands of citizens with a high degree of autonomy, these officials rather than the national leadership or the regime itself are the primary target of most protest actions. In fact, it is a common phenomenon in China that aggrieved locals will appeal to the Center for assistance against corrupt local officials, even making reference to local officials’ poor enforcement of central directives and policies.Thus, the struggles faced by everyday Chinese are often directed at particular local officials and local issues, limiting the desire of protestors to take the dangerous leap of coordinating their actions across local communities to challenge the regime itself.
As a consequence, much like the Middle East, the years 2011 and 2012 have been ones characterized by very high levels of protest activities in China. However, because of the decentralized nature of the Chinese state, these battles have been ones won and lost by claimants contesting local officials rather than challenging the regime itself.
Steve Hess is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and East Asian & Pacific Rim Studies at the University of Bridgeport’s College of Public and International Affairs. He is a specialist on contentious politics in authoritarian regimes with particular emphasis on China. He is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming article in the International Political Science Review, “From the Arab Spring to the Chinese Winter,” from which this piece was adapted.