Sometimes the most interesting development in a revolution takes place where you least expect it. In the case of Egypt, that would be China.
While the world is focused on the protests in Cairo, the authorities in Beijing quietly and with their usual efficiency censored Chinese media and social networking sites to remove information related to the popular uprisings taking place in Egypt and other locales in the Middle East. If you’re a Chinese official, what could be more disconcerting than having your citizens watch with curiosity the spread of public outrage and empowerment against authoritarian rule in another part of the world?
They reacted swiftly and, as per usual, with little apparent backlash. Restrict search engines, monitor social sites, censor media… they’ve got the drill down at this point. Try sitting in a Shanghai café and googling “Egypt” or “Tunisia”. Keep the public from watching and making the inevitable comparisons….that’s the way you do it if you’re the Chinese authorities.
Admittedly the comparisons aren’t perfect. While Mubarak has presided over a relatively stagnant economy for years with little improvement in the lives of the Egyptians and a decreasing sense of optimism and hope particularly among the youth, China has been careful to focus on improving the quality of life for their middle class. They understand what Mubarak and leaders in Yemen, Tunisia, and elsewhere have failed to grasp over the decades; you can maintain an iron grip on power and limit freedoms as long as the public has some semblance of upward mobility and economic improvement in their own lives.
While it’s satisfying and all very inspirational to attribute the protests and outrage in the Middle East to the peoples’ yearning for freedom and self determination, it’s more realistic to say they’re protesting because they’re tired of being ripped off and not getting their fair share.
The Chinese authorities understand the trickle down theory of repressive governing; give the people sufficient opportunity to better themselves within the confines of the regime and you can rule indefinitely. It’s the despot’s version of “all politics are retail.”
The problem the Chinese authorities face, and the reason why all those pundits and economists who talk about the inevitable rise of China as the world’s leading power may need to hedge their bets, is that eventually, within the confines of the regime, the public will outgrow the allocated space to improve and build upon their opportunities. And that process is spurred along every time an aggrieved population in a country like Tunisia, or Egypt or Yemen or elsewhere decides that they’re tired of playing Curly to some despot’s Moe. And yes, I am the first person to connect the dots between China, Egypt and "The Three Stooges."
The connection between Egypt’s unrest and China’s response is important because, while it’s clearly important and concerning what happens to Egypt, it’s exponentially more concerning what happens in China.
Protests are not unknown in China, but they don’t play out on the public stage. With the exception of Tianamen, which is a distant memory for many and more of a historical footnote for China’s youth, the protests that occur around the country, particularly among the poor, are quickly sealed off and rarely noted in any media either inside or outside the country.
The Chinese government understands it’s walking a fine line… keep the people happy enough to keep the party in power. While the Chinese population isn’t able to watch news reports of the uprisings in the Middle East, you can bet the authorities are glued to their television sets and computer monitors. It’s an uncomfortable glimpse at a possible future.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe.
Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector and has recently returned to Diligence LLC, a company he cofounded in 2000, as president.
He appears frequently in the media as an expert on counterterrorism, intelligence and homeland security.
Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," as well as major motion pictures.