China, Egypt and Democracy

Adam Minter, over on his blog, challenges journalists/columnists/bloggers, to not write about Chinese public opinion when discussing whether the country is at risk of an Egypt style uprising, but rather to discuss what institutions China has in place for “venting.” He makes a good point that discussions of what “most Chinese people want” are often completely subjective and heavily biased, but I think he too seems to misunderstand the problem.

It’s an interesting point that I think is relevant, and overlooked, in any discussion about Egypt and China: uprisings are what happens when people don’t have any other means of venting their dissatisfaction and anger. Now, I’m quite aware that uprisings sometimes happen in countries where there are elections, and I’m also aware that non-democratic societies have their own, sometimes effective, venting mechanisms. But I’m not going to argue that point. Instead, I’m going to suggest that instead of journalists/columnists/bloggers opining on whether the “average Chinese citizen” has an appetite for chaos and revolution, it might be better – if not more empirical – to step back and ask whether China has sufficient, robust institutions whereby average Chinese citizens can vent their frustrations, anger, and grievances. And I’m merely talking about the same kinds of grievances that might exist in a Democratic country: taxes, schools, roads, eminent domain. Feel free to take it further to, say, human rights. However you want to extend it, I think the answer – rigorously reported – might offer a more reasonable and empirical answer to whether or not China is at risk of an Egypt-style uprising.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to discuss uprisings in term of “venting.” People, in any society, will always attempt to modify governmental systems in order to better suit their needs, as long as the costs of however change is enacted does not cost more than the status quo. A society is therefore least prone to large scale violence if the society can change without violence, or if the cost of violence is incredibly high. As Minter’s commenter points out, a presidential vote is effectively the same thing as a protest, a way to effect policy.

Framed that way, the question is less whether Chinese people can vent, but rather whether they can effect change regarding their personal difficulties with the society, whether they can gather broad support related to a particular difficulty, and how much support would have to be gathered, and how resistant the system would have to be to change, to reduce the cost of violence to levels that are better than the status quo.

There’s significant room for debating how bad the status quo is, and what particular people’s problems are, but framed this way there are two things which are quite clearly working on behalf of the government.

1. China is run by a party, not a person: This is rather important and as far as I can tell it hasn’t been mentioned. The Communist party is an institutional structure that is more concerned with its own self-preservation than the preservation of any particular member of that institution. There are competing factions within the party which go out of their way to point out when specific projects pushed by other factions are not backed by perceived popular consensus (as determined by “mass incidents,” online rantings and so on). All indications are that the competition between different politicians in China is extremely cutthroat (almost literally), and it is fairly effective at responding to large social problems before they become large social problems, whereas in Egypt reforms couldn’t challenge Mubarak’s personal wealth or power base.

There are cases where the party has some systemic problems which it is unable to deal with overall (corruption related to property rights particularly, a paranoid attitude towards the internet and a tendency to accent state led investment I would all classify as systemic features of China’s political system). All indications are though that the party is aware of these problems and it puts considerable effort into at least providing the appearance of reform.

2. The Army: Another point that has been under appreciated is that the Chinese army is, if anything, more conservative than the civilian leadership, and in 1989 proved a willingness to use extreme force to deter protesters. This significantly ups the stakes of any attempt to challenge the authority of the party and leaves open questions about the consequences of a successful challenge to party rule.

All other facets of the story – the Internet, petitions, village elections, mass incidents – are somewhat secondary to these two points: The Communist party is flexible, and the Army is not.

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