On the heels of democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), recent "mass incidents" (qunti shijian) in China have spurred renewed debate about the level of social dissatisfaction and the stability of authoritarian governance in the People's Republic of China. Yet, unlike in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the MENA facing widespread rebellion against their ruling regimes, protests in China have not been directed at central political leaders or the political system as a whole. By examining the similarities and differences between Chinese and Middle Eastern authoritarianism, this article seeks to uncover which factors underpin continued public acceptance of the Chinese Communist Party and which ones--if left unchecked--bode ill for the regime.
A quick glance at the causes of unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries n the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) suggests that China, too, is susceptible to popular cries for political change. In China--much like in Egypt and Tunisia before the Arab Spring--income inequality has been growing, corruption is rampant and the same regime has had a choke hold on political power for decades. Yet underneath these superficial similarities lie key differences between China and authoritarian states in the MENA. First, the relationship of major socioeconomic sectors to the regime and to each other is fundamentally different in China. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia in recent years, China's ruling elites have pursued policies that mix capitalism and socialism in such a way that both prosperous and struggling socioeconomic sectors have benefited materially. The result has been that--despite widespread dissatisfaction with CCP corruption and injustice, particularly at the local level--no socioeconomic group has had an economic reason to seek the downfall of the CCP. (1) Moreover, CCP policies and practices have effectively divided China's vast lower class through differential treatment of the various groups therein.
Second, the nature of the ruling regime in China differs quite dramatically from those in countries in the MENA that have experienced recent mass unrest. Rather than allowing political power to be concentrated in the hands of one man with no ideological justification for his rule, in post-Mao (and especially post-Deng) China, the CCP has instituted collective leadership and has worked to legitimate itself not only via economic growth, but also via nationalism and elements of socialism. Finally, the CCP has undertaken political reforms that have made the regime more responsive to the grievances and demands of the people, thereby improving the quality of its governance. (2)
However, there are signs that this delicate balance may be tipping. First, since the spring of 2011, the CCP has backtracked on freedom of expression and political participation. These moves have proved counterproductive, increasing public dissatisfaction with the political status quo and jeopardizing the central leadership's reputation as benevolent "emperor." (3) Meanwhile, central authorities have been unwilling or unable to prevent local officials from snatching away the safety nets that have provided basic economic security to China's poor, which has spurred unrest from below. If CCP leaders wish to remain in power, they will need to enhance--not abandon--the factors that have worked in their favor in the reform era.
POPULAR PROTEST IN CHINA, SPRING 2011
For at least the last decade, China has witnessed tens of thousands of mass incidents (qunti shijian) per year. Moreover, both the number of incidents and their level of violence have increased over time. (4) Though the demographic characteristics and grievances of the participants have varied, it is clear that wide swaths of the Chinese public are unhappy with the status quo. Following the wave of public uprisings against authoritarian governance in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries of the MENA in the spring of 2011, several large-scale and violent popular protests swept China. …