The China Syndrome

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Carlos Barria / Reuters

Pre-emptive strike Police seize a man at a Jasmine protest in Shanghai on Feb. 20

The man lived near a tiny Maine town called China (pop. 4,100). But that wasn't why, as he drove me through the backwoods of New England, he wanted to talk about the huge country halfway across the globe where I lived. Nearly every day for the past month, he had watched television images of wave after wave of protesters standing up to their autocratic rulers. His question was only natural: When would China — the country, not the town — face its own uprising?

On the face of it, there are similarities between China and those nations catalyzed by the Jasmine Revolution. While China is not ruled by a dictator entrenched for decades, an authoritarian, one-party regime has long held power. As in the Arab world, the country is struggling with rising food and real estate prices, as well as growing unemployment among college graduates. Corruption gnaws at society. A widening wealth gap means the impoverished feel poorer than they once did.

But there is a crucial difference — and this is why expectations of a Beijing Spring are premature. In the Middle East and North Africa, even in countries with decent economic growth, governments are seen as the problem. In China, for all the Communist Party's sins and ideological contortions, the regime is regarded by its people as the engineer of the most spectacular economic expansion the world has ever seen. Even as the rest of the globe suffered during the financial crisis, China kept chugging along. Why throw the bums out when the bums keep delivering? Few Chinese, schooled as they are in the perils of revolution, would want to risk Arab-style chaos.

Now that we are used to the idea of a resurgent China, the gains that the country has made during three decades of economic reform seem almost commonplace. But let's recap: hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty, and an economy that, now the world's second largest, has doubled roughly every eight years. Savvy about its survival, the Communist Party has made sure to equate the country's remarkable gains with its own longevity. China's social contract goes like this: We bring you economic betterment, you don't complain about political stagnation. Despite significant social problems, China brims with hope for an ever better future and pride in an ever stronger role in global affairs. Walk the streets of China's cities and the air is thick not only with pollution but also with ambition.

Of course, stability is also helped by the fact that Beijing has built one of the world's most comprehensive security apparatuses. (Last year China spent $75 billion on domestic security, according to official figures.) When exile democracy groups issued online calls for a Jasmine Revolution to bloom in China on Feb. 20, Beijing launched a furious pre-emptive strike. Dozens of dissidents were detained or forced to "drink tea" with public security agents who warned them against joining any demonstrations. Chinese Internet censors worked overtime, blocking searches of the Mandarin words for jasmine or Egypt. Long before the Arab street erupted, Facebook and Twitter, the technological midwives to revolution, were banned in China. And just as a reminder that Big Brother is watching, President Hu Jintao said on Feb. 19 that "virtual society," or the Internet, needed to be monitored more closely.

Some might say that even a month ago few expected the Arab street to burn as it is now burning. This much, then, is true: even if China doesn't explode, its government faces an existential problem. Those high growth rates needed to guarantee a pliant populace and absorb new waves of labor cannot last forever. By its own estimation, China needs growth of 7% to 8% in order to maintain social stability. Already, China suffers from around 80,000 small-scale protests a year, according to government statistics. Imagine what might happen when gravity finally pulls the Chinese economy back into the normal atmosphere.

In the same Feb. 19 speech in which he called for greater Internet controls, Hu also urged the government to "solve prominent problems that might harm the harmony and stability of society." Many Arab leaders did not think their people would turn against them. After decades of political repression, they had grown overconfident of their enduring power. In contrast, since the Tiananmen protests of 1989, China's leaders have been paranoid about any public discontent mushrooming into antigovernment fervor. The anticipation of unrest expressed by the man from China, Maine, is shared by the Communist Party — but readiness does not ensure perpetual survival.