An article in yesterday’s Washington Post leads with: “Could the popular revolt against authoritarian regimes of the Middle East ever spread to China, the world’s most populous nation?”
Well, no. Or at least, it’s highly doubtful. China is certainly a repressive an authoritarian nation by liberal democratic standards, but Hu Jintao (pictured) is no Hosni Mubarak. More importantly, the Chinese Communist Party is flexible in a way that most North African/Middle Eastern despots aren’t, and it’s certainly more committed to economic growth. Widespread poverty was one of the major catalysts for the riots in both Egypt and Tunisia, but poverty in China has been dropping at a remarkable rate.
That isn’t to say that Jintao and the Politburo have absolutely nothing to worry about. But if anything threatens internal stability, it’s not a popular democratic uprising; China’s expanding middle class is largely satisfied with the status quo. The greater threat to the Party comes from within its own security apparatus.
There’s a solid article in this month’s The New Republic (behind a paywall, sadly) that drives this point home. As author Joshua Kurlantzick points out, officers in the People’s Liberation Army tend to be far away more hawkish than their civilian overlords. They’ve also become increasingly willing to make their own policy preferences known, even when those preferences clash with the commands coming down from on high. If a direct challenge to the Chinese government lies in the future, it will come from powerful military tired of being held on a short leash by men who never served within its ranks.
This puts both the United States and human rights groups in a somewhat awkward position: both will find that an authoritarian Communist government run by career bureaucrats does more for their interests than a nationalistic military state. Which is why, contra Kulantzick, I don’t think the Obama administration is doing China’s hawks any favors by showing greater deference to Beijing. Instead, by getting cozy with China’s more moderate civilian leadership, the US is trying to consolidate that leadership’s legitimacy. And that’s smart! Even if it means turning down the heat on issues like Tibet, it’s better for human rights and regional stability in the long run. We certainly wouldn’t be doing the Tibetans any favors if we facilitated the rise of a more belligerent, hawkish Chinese government.