Over the last few months, the world’s attention has understandably been focused on the events rocking the Middle East. The West has been kept busy with diplomatic efforts in Egypt and the Gulf states, with a war in Libya, and the possible descent of Syria, a major geopolitical player in Middle Eastern politics, into civil war. While the world has been watching the Arab world, however, other oppressed peoples have also been rising up.
No doubt to the surprise of many, this includes slow but steady reports of mob violence in major Chinese cities. China continues to present itself to the world as a superpower in waiting, as a country ready to stand alongside the United States as joint masters of the world. But unless they can get their social problems under control, though they might not follow several Arab regimes into disgrace and exile, they certainly will struggle to command the international legitimacy they clearly crave.
China is a country obsessed with being seen to be powerful, and constantly worries about losing face. Examples abound. China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics, for which no expense was spared, was a coming-out party for all the world, showing that China had arrived. Before the party began, China carefully gave its capital city of Beijing a makeover, deporting laborers, erecting modern facades to conceal old neighborhoods, investing billions in new sports facilities, and virtually shutting down major industrial regions so that the infamous smog Beijing is known for would clear out. Even spitting in public was banned.
China has also pursued a manned space program, aggressively sought to develop (some might say colonize) Africa, and recently announced it will soon launch an aircraft carrier. The carrier, Chinese officials note, is intended to showcase China’s power. "All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers — they are symbols of a great nation," Lieutenant General Qi Jianguowas said while announcing the carrier. And, of course, the growing economic power of China cannot be understated.
But all these admitted triumphs, carefully stage-managed by a Chinese regime eager to impress and fearful of international embarrassment, are threatened by the protests sweeping the country. The causes of the protests differ from place to place. Some are religious, others, ethnic (sometimes it’s unclear where one begins and the other ends). Many protests concern Chinese citizens feeling that they have been unfairly compensated for land now being used for industrial or commercial ventures that are making other people rich. Some seem to be simply based on the clash of interests between China’s pampered ruling class and its hundreds of millions of poor. But whatever their cause, the protests reveal plainly that despite China’s financial and military might, it is a country facing serious issues.
The latest report of mass violence emerged last week from the city of Zengcheng, and reportedly began after security guards beat a pregnant migrant worker. This sparked a riot, with migrant workers attacking government buildings. China has responded with overwhelming force, sending in troops, extra police and armored vehicles into areas beset by violence. They are not necessarily seeking to crush the protests, but to smother them with a display of power. They are also apparently willing to make concessions to the mob — the firing of corrupt officials, replacing unpopular local leaders, and the like. It’s the classic carrot-and-stick approach: Yes, we understand your frustration and will remove this crooked cop, they might say, while also moving thousands of paramilitaries with heavy weapons into the city in case the conciliatory gestures aren’t enough.
Perhaps more interesting is how they present these incidents to the outside world: They don’t, and they do their best to prevent people from learning about it via the Internet, both in and outside China. Entire cities, home to millions, have all searches for their name blocked by Chinese Internet censors as a way of preventing anyone from searching for news about the violence. And the consequences for speaking to foreign reporters are clearly understood. A recent CNN report about violence in a Chinese industrial city noted that local citizens with first-hand knowledge of the violence knew better than to speak with foreign media.
But simply covering up the problem won’t be enough to make it go away. China is becoming a victim of its own success. Its rapid growth over the last several decades has seen enormous internal migrations of people needed to work in new industries far from their homes. These workers often face housing shortages and low wages, but are daily faced with the reality that millions of other Chinese have ascended to a comfortable middle-class life or become outright millionaires thanks to the low-paid work of these armies of migrants. These migrants are young, disenfranchised, living in highly dense communities and can see no realistic hope for a brighter future. In other words, they share much with the millions of Arabs who rose up against their ruling Middle Eastern regimes over the last several months.
The Chinese are clearly aware of the risk, even going so far as to ban sales of jasmine because of its symbolic link to the Middle East uprisings. China is also the world’s most prolific censor of the Internet, and seeks to prevent disaffected youth from mobilizing in online forums (to be sure, the tech-savvy youth also use the Internet to fight back against the regime). These methods, along with generous applications of raw physical violence, might well be enough to keep the regime on top of any mass protest movement the likes of which have toppled several Middle Eastern leaders. In this, they’ll be aided by hundreds of millions of Chinese who have benefited from the current system and would be just as threatened by a mass uprising as the leadership.
But while the regime may survive, it will not thrive. China can host sporting events, send probes to Mars and launch a dozen aircraft carriers. But nothing will speak to the credibility of the regime like its inability to prevent their own citizens from rioting in the streets week after week, month after month.
Matt Gurney is a columnist and editor at Canada’s National Post. He can be reached on Twitter @mattgurney.