Could it happen in China?

Just a few minutes ago, at a live press conference with White House press secretary Robert Gibb, one of the reporters asked him whether he believed the spirit of revolution we’re witnessing in Egypt and Tunisia might spread to China. Gibb dodged the question, of course, and said he couldn’t make any broad generalities.

If I were Gibb I’d have been less equivocal, and would have said, “No.” Anything is possible, I suppose, but the very idea of Chinese activists being so inspired by the riots in Egypt that they’d try to implement the same tactics in China is so absurd it’s laughable.

The only renowned activist in China who’s been pushing for democratic reforms is named Liu Xiaobo, and he’s sitting alone in a jail cell. And most Chinese people believe that’s where he belongs. Not only did he never garner anything like mainstream popular support, he’s considered a “criminal” and a “traitor” by most Chinese citizens who, unfortunately, only know of Liu through the government-owned Chinese media. The Chinese are in no mood to follow anti-government activists into the streets to battle the army and the police.

Most Chinese, as we’ve said here many times, have little to no interest in democratic reforms. The vocal few who do quickly become marginalized or silenced altogether. A major factor behind both the Tunisian and Egyptian conflagrations was poverty and massive unemployment. Recent explosions in the price of food helped bring these crises to a head. (Everyone should be aware that the food inflation that’s plaguing much of the Middle East and Asia is a recipe for widespread instability. Governments are starting to hoard rice to safeguard against riots. Nothing gets the people onto the streets like food inflation.)

China has done a far better job than Egypt and Tunisia in terms of keeping people employed and placated. Its public works projects and subsidies of Chinese businesses have helped keep unemployment in check and, unlike in Tunisia, the mood in China (at least when I was there last a few months ago) was wildly optimistic. Tunisia and Egypt are poor, China is rich. Massive riots are virtually unthinkable. Today’s Chinese have little appetite for chaos.

The only thing that might, at some point in the future, lead to widespread protests in China would be crushing inflation. We aren’t near that point, but I believe we’re inching in that direction. Just yesterday China announced new real estate taxes in Chongqing and Shanghai to slow down the sizzling real estate market (the taxes are probably too mild to make much difference). For now, China has things under control and the reporter at today’s press conference can rest assured that we won’t see in Beijing what we’re seeing in Cairo. But I want to repeat my warning that inflation, and especially food prices, is going to be the greatest threat to global stability in the not too distant future. A couple of months ago I sold a fair portion of gold and put the money into agriculture stocks. You might want to do the same.

The Discussion: 75 Comments

Certainly, Beijing is not Cairo. But protesters in Cairo weren’t following some famous pro-democracy activist into the streets, so I’m not sure Liu Xiaobo is an apt comparison to draw here. People in China may consider Liu a criminal, but the Prime Minister just encouraged more people to come out and air their complaints about the government, the idea that Chinese people might act more or less on their own isn’t absurd.

And while I haven’t followed Egypt closely before today, I don’t think China has done as great a job placating everyone in the last few months as you seem to suggest. Inflation is still a problem everyone is pissed about, but the widening gap between rich and poor might be equally explosive. And Qian Yunhui, or the 77 RMB lady, are just the most recent examples that Chinese people are more cynical than ever before about the government.

I would be shocked to see massive anti-government protests calling for a new government like the ones in Cairo. But I wouldn’t be too surprised to see another “Li Gang” incident spark some real unrest about inflation, housing prices and the wealth gap, given the right circumstances.

Then again, I’ve now been awake for almost 24 hours, so it’s possible this post doesn’t make any sense…

January 29, 2011 @ 6:40 am | Comment

My only point about Liu is that advocates of democratic reforms in China don’t have the support of the masses. We’re in complete agreement as to what COULD lead to widespread riots.

January 29, 2011 @ 6:56 am | Comment

Not to nitpick Charlie but I wouldn’t describe China as “rich”. Less poor than Tunisia and Egypt, perhaps, but by no means “rich”.

That aside, I think the key point is that the Egyptians have just about had it with decades of virtual stagnation and poverty, whereas (as you both point out) China is growing so there’s less of a basis for mass discontent.

In addition I’m not at all certain that the Mubarak regime is finished, anyway. Let’s see in a couple of days.

January 29, 2011 @ 7:05 am | Comment


Have to totally disagree with you on this.
I do believe given the right moment people will stand up again.
I don’t believe that most people are happy with just having more money.
I absolutely know that the CCP is watching every move that is happening in Egypt and are very nervous.
I pray for this day for both the Chinese people and Tibetans.

January 29, 2011 @ 7:32 am | Comment

[…] The Peking Duck, “Could it Happen in China?” […]

January 29, 2011 @ 7:33 am | Pingback

My disagreement, too, is nit-picking, while the overall view is in support of your argument.

Not only is China not showing much support for anti-government protests, as long as the government (with all the problems there are) is seen to try and respond, the consensus appears to be that there’s still better chances for you to get ahead with it intact than after any sort of revolt (even if there were a chance for its success, which is not high at all).
It’s not just a matter of not knowing much about what pro-democracy leaders really want (i.e., the fault of controlled media and propaganda), preferring the current politics to revolution fits with personal convictions, recent history, and long-standing Chinese tradition – a powerful combination, even as food prices and corruption lead to dissatisfied murmurs over a glass of beer.

True, though, if there were economic problems that magnified – and dissatisfaction with housing prices and the income gap they already show even for a middle class, plus rising food prices that disproportionately affect the poor *is* strong – there could easily be trouble ahead. Still, given that you would have to have something that makes the military, for example, change their minds for change to occur, it’s not likely… More likely that the government blames the outside world (uhm, tea party-China bashing, anyone?), hands out food and seems to take away some rich people’s money, and be hailed as heroes.

January 29, 2011 @ 7:38 am | Comment

GDP per capita stats from the IMF for 2010, in US dollars:

“89 Thailand 4,620
90 Iran 4,484
91 Maldives 4,478
92 Algeria 4,477
93 Jordan 4,435
94 Ecuador 4,295
95 China, People’s Republic of 4,283
96 Belize 4,262
97 Tunisia 4,160
98 Bosnia and Herzegovina 4,157
99 El Salvador 3,717
100 Turkmenistan 3,663
101 Albania 3,661
102 Fiji 3,544
103 Kosovo 3,164
104 Congo, Republic of the 3,075
105 Swaziland 3,072
106 Samoa 3,023
107 Cape Verde 3,007
108 Ukraine 3,002
109 Indonesia 2,963
110 Vanuatu 2,917
111 Tonga 2,907
112 Syria 2,892
113 Morocco 2,868
114 Guyana 2,844
115 Guatemala 2,839
116 Egypt 2,771

That is, China is only marginally richer than Tunisia, and, whilst considerably richer than Egypt, is poorer than Iran and Thailand. In fact, of the 26 countries in the GDP per capita bracket defined by Egypt and Thailand, by my count at least 20 have experienced some kind of marked civil unrest in the last 15 years. Put simply, China is not “too rich” to experience upheaval.

Richard, I think your characterization of the Chinese people as relentlessly pro-CCP and averse to protest can only be put down to you having spent much of your time in China in Beijing working for government-associated concerns like the government-owned Global Times. During my time in Nanjing and Shenzhen, I saw at least two instances of large-scale demonstration (a wild-cat strike in SZ and a quite angry dispossessed farmer’s protest in Nanjing), a small-scale demonstration by the lecturers at the university I worked at protesting a decision not to pay a pension to the widow of a lecturer who died on the job, and I was in the city whilst the anti-Japanese demonstrations were taking place. To say that demonstrations cannot take place against the government is ludicrous.

What is lacking in China is the sense of “enough is enough” that finally lead to the outbreak in Tunisia, nor are the links between China and the middle east strong enough for events in Tunisia to have a knock-on effect in China – but is there anger against the government? Yes, all one need do is speak to people to hear it – take the Taxi drivers in Shenzhen for example, who struck for higher fares when the government refused to raise them, and more than one of whom described the government to me as having been happy to let them starve.

Yes, Liu Xiaobo is in jail, and so now is El-Baradei (Egypt’s Nobel Laureate) after having spent a good many years in exile – but the leaders of this movement are grass-roots organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood. The CCP has been successful at co-opting the nationalist movements that have emerged so-far, but it can not do so forever – one day the nationalist golem that the CCP has formed for itself may very turn against its master.

January 29, 2011 @ 8:06 am | Comment


Is one important difference that in China a majority of the ill-will towards the authorities is focused towards local and provincial government? China is large enough that the old idea of the “good emperor” being misled by corrupt officials and mandarins can still stand. Do many people seem to assume that the Beijing administration would do the right thing if only corrupt local leaders could be dealt with?

Even if you look at Chinese martial arts films, so many of them follow/followed the format of the evil eunuch twisting the Emperor’s orders/speaking in his name and going after the good guy, who is loyal to the Emperor. I can’t remember the last film that showed the good guy going after an evil emperor. The one film that had the potential to do that, Hero, ended up with the good guy realising that the Emperor was actually just fighting for peace – so he gave up his revenge mission.

I suppose that something would need to happen to show enough people that the central government was as corrupt as the local officials who casually abuse their power. I’m not suggesting they’re seen as paragons of virtue but they often seem to escape significant criticism, despite the fact they’re ultimately in charge.

January 29, 2011 @ 9:06 am | Comment

When I say “China is rich” I hope it’s obvious that I mean the Chinese government is rich – rich enough to pay for subsidies and to keep its people fed. China is dirt poor, and it’s also fabulously wealthy. Many of its citizens may be on a par with Tunisians in terms of income, but China has been able to keep those people off the streets by making sure enough of them have jobs, by making sure the masses aren’t hungry, and by creating a spirit of optimism and opportunity.

China’s largely a third-world country, while at the same time being the world’s second superpower, economically at least.

Diane, having lived there and worked there, I would have to say there is virtually no way the Chinese people would stand up and rebel against their government without some catastrophic catalyst. They’ve known authoritarian rule for centuries and most are happy with it as practiced by the current government. I know you are an optimist in terms of believing people prize liberty and freedom above all else, and I respect that. But I have to disagree; money and security come first in China. As long as they have that and their social freedoms, they remain relatively unconcerned about political freedoms.

January 29, 2011 @ 9:25 am | Comment


“…..but the leaders of this movement are grass-roots organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood.”

In fact the Muslim Brotherhood have been ****particularly tardy**** in coming forward in Egypt, not wishing to upset their unspoken agreement with the govt, even though 20 of their leadership were arrested yesterday. The Falafists have flatly refused to join the demonstrations.

Try Dan Nolan’s reports on Al Jazeera. More to the point Egypt and Tunisia risings can be characterised as non-ideological rejections of the status quo, gathering up midddle class professionals, educated unemployed youth and the generally plain pissed off. The Islamicists have been left well behind in new rush of events.

January 29, 2011 @ 9:43 am | Comment

“They’ve known authoritarian rule for centuries and most are happy with it as practiced by the current government.”

Got to disagree with you there, Richard. Certainly, the first part is true, and I think even now many people are willing to tolerate it (忍 is a virtue and all that…) but I don’t think most, or even many common people are “happy” with the way the government is currently run. Certainly online there is massive dissatisfaction, but offline I think things have changed markedly in the past year too, especially in the past three or four months.

I would go so far as to say that at the moment, the vast majority of Chinese people are dissatisfied with the government’s affect on their lives. What makes it different from Tunisia or Egypt is that (1) plenty of people don’t consider that reason enough to do anything more than gripe and (2) “Government” and “the central government” aren’t always connected. A lot of people feel the system has very serious problems, but until the recent inflation, felt like all these issues were just connected to local corruption.

Given all the 中央 stress on a continually-developing economy, though, people seem to be losing faith pretty swiftly with housing prices and inflation making it clear that whatever economic gains the government is making, they aren’t helping the people. Although, of course, some are blaming this on local corruption as well…

January 29, 2011 @ 1:38 pm | Comment

I agree that it’s certainly not going to happen (and in fact I think that reporter is an idiot to ask such a question; what does it have to do with China?) but a revolution being touched off by a street vendor having his goods humiliatingly confiscated and protesting by setting himself on fire has some parallels to phenomena in China (cheng guan, protests against forced demolition) that I think the authorities would certainly prefer people to overlook.

January 29, 2011 @ 2:07 pm | Comment

@Raj – To an extent, yes, people will complain about local corruption without connecting the dots, but then they know about local corruption – corruption on a national level is not reported.

A much more powerful deterrent is the knowledge that many of the men (and they are exclusively men at the moment) who are in power now were the same people who had a hand in crushing the 1989 pro-democracy movement.

@Richard –

“I would have to say there is virtually no way the Chinese people would stand up and rebel against their government without some catastrophic catalyst. They’ve known authoritarian rule for centuries and most are happy with it as practiced by the current government. I know you are an optimist in terms of believing people prize liberty and freedom above all else, and I respect that. But I have to disagree; money and security come first in China. As long as they have that and their social freedoms, they remain relatively unconcerned about political freedoms.”

I have to say that I disagree with you strongly here. Whilst I don’t think that change is coming soon in China, it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility. Chinese history is full of movements and protests which occurred without having a “catastrophic catalyst”, the ’89 pro-democracy movement being a solid example. Taiwan’s transfer to democracy was brought about, not by catastrophe, but by slow pressure and the death of Jiang Jingguo. As for “money and security coming first”, this is probably true everywhere, and is the greatest cause of rebellions such as the one we have seen in Egypt.

I am still not exactly sure what you mean by the Chinese government being “rich” – it has large reserves of foreign currency, this is true, but in per capita terms its holdings are about the same as Iran, Algeria, or Thailand. Is Thailand’s government ‘rich’?

At any rate, it is still worth noting that, were Tunisia a Chinese province, it would be in the upper third of China’s administrative regions, and were Egypt a province it would be in the lower third, but still above Tibet, Yunnan, Gansu and Guizhou.

January 29, 2011 @ 3:38 pm | Comment

Quite right, Richard. Often when I read American newspaper reports on China they seem to be written with the assumption that the Chinese are living under great repression and they are just itching to overthrow the corrupt CCP dynasties, Tunisia-style. While I would personally love to see more freedom of speech, association, religion etc in China, on my recent visit to China the locals didn’t seem too bothered about not being able to friend me on Facebook or to follow the Pope’s line on ecumenical matters.

January 29, 2011 @ 6:49 pm | Comment

” I think your characterization of the Chinese people as relentlessly pro-CCP and averse to protest can only be”

Please don’t ‘blame’ the Chinese people for ‘not protesting’ or ‘liking the government’; there is a very deliberate effort on the government’s part to not show the public anything worth rioting over. You can’t censor every kind of media under the sun, and then turn around and say, “Well it looks like the Chinese have let their voice be heard. They love it.”

As for the ‘when can the Chinese vote’ argument, I have made similar claims in the past (not about $, but education), and some have let me know, quite strongly, that those very same arguments were made about blacks and women in the US. If the Americans had waited for ‘black wages’ or ‘black education’ to improve before letting them vote, how long would that have taken (obviously, within the context of an anti-black educational system and workforce). The truth is Chinese have no ‘experience’ with Democratic life, and yea, they might vote for the populist know-nothing (hello, Sarah Palin might be President next year). This is the chance we take with Democracy.

The upside to a democracy, is of course, it keeps the government (It’s the PEOPLE’S Republic, after all, though ornamental that name may be) in check. Personally, i’d be in favor of some property rights in China, and a real justice/legal system. Fingers crossed.

January 30, 2011 @ 1:16 am | Comment

“While I would personally love to see more freedom of speech, association, religion etc in China, on my recent visit to China the locals didn’t seem too bothered about not being able to friend me on Facebook or to follow the Pope’s line on ecumenical matters”

Religion? Please. What about the news stories on every day announcing that ‘magically’ all the food prices have shot up’? Sounds like people are complaining. Don’t let the skyscrapers (Millionaire property/investments) fool you. The vast majority of Chinese live a poor, but steadily improving, experience. Once they have a few square meals, they’ll get on to the meaning of life. If the “more money than God” government wanted to bring those prices down, they could just subsidize. But they don’t. All we get is an ‘I feel your pain’ from Hu Jintao.

That’s like Microsoft serving gruel in the company cafeteria and Gates/Ballmer announced they ‘heard about that’ and ‘it sounds rough’.. right after the company announced another record quarter, with about 60 billion in the bank sitting around collecting interest. Ghastly.

January 30, 2011 @ 1:26 am | Comment

Accidentally deleted my own comment, will try to recreate:

China is rich enough to acquire companies around the world and build high-speed railways and infrastructure and subsidize home-grown businesses. This spending ensures employment and food for hundreds of thousands if not millions. Tunisia and Egypt can’t do this. The Chinese government has cash. China is rich, and it’s dirt poor. Its spending power is immense, and as we saw in its response to the 2008 financial crisis, it will pull all stops to keep the people employed and placated.

Are Chinese people so unhappy with their government that they will take to the streets and risk their lives to protest against it? I would say no, emphatically, unless something has changed so drastically since I was last in China a few months ago. All Chinese people seem to have a beef against their government (just as we have in the US). Most also seem to appreciate the huge improvements in their standard of living over just 30 years, and are not at all ready to risk all of that and try to bring the government down. They are happy enough with their government – or at least they are placated and content enough not to take to the streets and risk their lives to bring it down. The one thing that could cause them to do this, as I said in my post, is inflation. Has it gotten so bad that they’re on the brink? I don’t think so, though I’m not there and can’t say whether the masses are now so desperate as to revolt.

I’m betting that the government will subsidize food if the price of rice continues its upward spiral. It may have no choice if things get to the breaking point. It’s either that, or Tunisia-style riots.

As I said in my post, I highly recommend purchasing agriculture stocks, which I started doing about two years ago. Bad weather in Russia and Australia and elsewhere have had extreme effects on the price of food this year, contributing to the inflation we’re already seeing. It’s only a matter of time before this is felt in the US as well. This is a fact, not speculation.

January 30, 2011 @ 1:38 am | Comment

One of the best threads in a long time. Thanks to everyone for their input. I’ve found it interesting and thought provoking, a refreshing change from all the punditry and name calling on so many other websites.

January 30, 2011 @ 8:12 am | Comment

Talking about name calling: Richard, you do realize that you have a hand in sparking revolt over high food prices, since it is also speculation with ag. stocks that is causing the increase?

Some would call you names for that.

I would just like to point out that that’s what people do: Try to make the best out of the weird and wacky world we all live in, whether that’s a US where Sarah Palin might become the next president, or a China where you may be thrown in jail for speaking out too loudly – and can see that not doing so but trying to find ways to profit may easily give you a better life. Easy-enough choice, so far…

January 30, 2011 @ 8:54 am | Comment

Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

January 30, 2011 @ 9:12 am | Trackback

Gerald, I’m not speculating, I’m investing. And I’ve done pretty well. I simply see food inflation as an inevitability. It’s here already and it’s just going to get worse. Is there anything morally wrong with investing in stocks/ETFs that will profit from this trend?

N.A. Sinophile, thanks for the comment. I’m wondering where my usual trolls are.

January 30, 2011 @ 10:08 am | Comment

I know it’s not the intent of this post but still, it’s quite funny how no one has mentioned, even in passing, the hypocrisy of the American administration that’s been revealed by these protests so far. Where’s the talk of the ‘international community’ demanding Mubarak to step down immediately??

Anyway, I agree with you, Richard. Whatever gripes they might have against their goverment, provincial or central, the Chinese are generally happy with their lot. Those who think otherwise are just indulging in wishful thinking.

January 30, 2011 @ 11:12 am | Comment

Richard. You can add chinadigital times to the crossposts. Nothing like a holiday to get the mojo working.

January 30, 2011 @ 11:37 am | Comment

The most realistic scenario that will likely to happen soon will be anarchy riot in the West first rather in China.

January 30, 2011 @ 11:46 am | Comment

My 2cents as a Chinese journo: While the urban population has no appetite for any kind of social unrest, the rural population has already been pushed very close to the edge.

Many of them have lost their land, cannot get a decent job in cities or are barely able to feed themselves with their wages as a construction worker or restaurant waiter.

They have no way of bettering their lives like city folks (very much due to the hukou system), or even have any kind of saving to start a small business. They have no medical or any kind of social safety.

If the living expenses (rent, food) keep going up like the past 2 years, they might have no choice but stand up.

January 30, 2011 @ 11:56 am | Comment

@ Mia’s post. 1.4 billion population. 80-100 million members of the middle classes. 700 million peasants. 477,000 millionaires of which one-third are party members and another third are involved in real estate. Finally 73 million party members.

Okay, there are a a few hundred million unaccounted for. And it is the peasantry who are on the sharp end of land reclamations, drought and seriously diminishing water resources.

January 30, 2011 @ 12:58 pm | Comment

The most realistic scenario that will likely to happen soon will be anarchy riot in the West first rather in China.

What do you base that on? In the West, why riot against the government? You can toss them out of office at the next election.

January 30, 2011 @ 12:59 pm | Comment

Mia, it is one thing to voice displeasure against inflation among poor, but it is another thing to start revolution. IMHO, China is already too big for revolution. What’s China need is to have better civil society, better law and order. It is already happening in big cities like Shanghai.

As for HuKou, it is just matter of time before China abolish that. My bet is around 2012 when the new leadership comes on board.

As for those who believe revolution, don’t forget current leadership Hu and Wen are among most popular leaders in China. They would win election if there is one.

January 30, 2011 @ 1:09 pm | Comment

MJ: it’s quite funny how no one has mentioned, even in passing, the hypocrisy of the American administration that’s been revealed by these protests so far. Where’s the talk of the ‘international community’ demanding Mubarak to step down immediately??

This is a very, very difficult situation for the US, which has invested tens of billions of dollars over the decades in Egypt’s military, as well as other forms of aid. I would like Mubarak to step down, and I suspect ultimately he will. But who’s there to replace him? Interesting perspective on this thorny question over here, by a very liberal, intelligent pundit. So before we plunge into emotional decisions, we’d better know what we’re bringing on. I totally understand the US’s caution at the moment.

Jim: As for those who believe revolution, don’t forget current leadership Hu and Wen are among most popular leaders in China. They would win election if there is one.

Absolutely correct, for better or worse.

January 30, 2011 @ 1:18 pm | Comment

Richard, A lot of people also believe election in the West is choice between bad and less bad choice. In many cases, there is no difference between major parties and in most case, they don’t represent people in general. Yet due to procedure and law, people can only pick among those candidates. That’s why there are protest in Greece and Spain.

January 30, 2011 @ 1:21 pm | Comment

Jim, I can still assure you, we aren’t about to see activists rioting in the streets of the US demanding regime change as we’re seeing in Tunisia and Egypt as was suggested above. At least not anytime soon. For all of the US’s monumental problems, its fundamentals are still strong enough, for now, to preclude blood in the streets.

January 30, 2011 @ 1:26 pm | Comment

@Richard –

“China is rich enough to acquire companies around the world and build high-speed railways and infrastructure and subsidize home-grown businesses. This spending ensures employment and food for hundreds of thousands if not millions. Tunisia and Egypt can’t do this.”

And yet, according to the latest statistics I could find (2005) Chinese government spending per US dollar of GDP is roughly the same as that of Egypt and Tunisia at 0.142$ per $1 as compared to 0.128 $ per $1 and 0.155 $ per $1 respectively.

Egypt, in particular, spends a great deal on large projects such as the creation of a “Second Nile Valley” in the Sinai ( ) the armed forces and security services in fact provide (or, at least, have provided) employment to hundreds of thousands who would otherwise gone hungry. This investment in infrastructure was also noted in the Economist’s “World in 2011” report, which (somewhat presciently) said:

“Assuming a Mubarak is in charge, the government will press ahead with job-creating infrastructure investment. That won’t prevent workers from taking to the streets to protest against low wages and poor living standards”

I think here what you are referring to here is a result of scale – China has more huge projects and buys more big companies than Egypt or Tunisia because China is much larger than Egypt or Tunisia. On a per-capita basis the “richness” of China’s government is not nearly so obvious. What it does have on its side is a growth rate that puts it in the fastest growing countries in the world, with projected growth for this year of 8.4%, as compared to projected growth (which is almost certain to be revised downwards) in Egypt and Tunisia of 5.5% and 5.4% respective.

January 30, 2011 @ 3:47 pm | Comment

You never now. Who could foresaw what happened in Tunisia and now in Egypt?

I was in Cairo for business before new year and could see nothing that could had indicated what was coming.

As for China….. Watch the video embedded in this Spanish news. (no need to read Spanish, although you can google translate it)

Not only wolves, but even rabbits can revolt…

January 30, 2011 @ 5:32 pm | Comment

Who said rabbits are little harmless cute animals?

January 30, 2011 @ 5:36 pm | Comment

Todays homework:

Pleasw answer the question: Could it happen in China?

Answer yes

Demonstration: CCP is blocking news and microblogs about Egypt.

Corollary: If they take the bother to block it, they consider it possible.

January 30, 2011 @ 5:39 pm | Comment

@FOARP, there is saying in the West, there is “lie, bad lie and statistic”. Statistic per capita GDP is meaningless for big country like China. There are two Chinas. The Big cities China and rural China. Big cities China (like ShangHai and Beijing and others) are booming while rural China is struggle big times as suggested the poster Mia. There could be uprising among peasants potentially, however, Chinese government already change many policies to help them (Experimentation of get rid of “HuKou” and create property tax in ShangHai, etc). The whole “creating Harmony society” slogan created by Wen and Hu for the past eight years is to help rural communities. That’s why Wen and Hu are popular among Chinese mass.

@ecodelta: Anything is possible.

How about even provoked question? Could it happened in the States?

Answer is Yes
Demonstration: Already right wing talk shows about uprising among the underprivileged.
Corollary: If popular radio show talk about, they must consider it possible.

January 30, 2011 @ 9:26 pm | Comment

Nice try, but falls short.

In the US there has been demonstrations and marchs of all kinds: civil rights, vietnam war, segregation..

Since the civil war there was no major challenge or conflict with the political system. And as far as I know no information/thought control comparable with what is practiced in the PRC,

In the meantime, just about anything gets blocked in the GFW, even this blog.

If everything is so wonderful…. then why waste resources and not apply them in other, more needed, areas?

January 30, 2011 @ 10:16 pm | Comment

“Here you have several political parties and they have to live with you, there we have only one and we have to live with them”

From my Asian wife (not Chinese) after living for some months in my country.

(I still smile when I remember her panicked mobile phone call after experiencing her first demonstration on the street. In their country it seems police handle those things quite differently…)

January 30, 2011 @ 10:22 pm | Comment

long a ago I addressed this very issue in a post called Rich China, Poor China. There is more than one China. China is rich, and China is poor. The rich side has vast amounts of money to spend, which often brings employment to the poor who migrate to do the work. It’s not about GDP statistics. It’s about projects like the Olympics and the World Expo, which literally overhauled two of the world’s greatest cities.

January 30, 2011 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

For long time there has been this divide between the coast and the hinterland.

I wonder if the opening of the new communication lines from east China towards the south and west trough central Asia could reduce the imbalance.

January 30, 2011 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

[…] censorship all seems a bit over the top. As one China-based western blogger observed: “Anything is possible, I suppose, but the very idea of Chinese activists being so […]

January 31, 2011 @ 2:53 am | Pingback

@ We aren’t about to see activists rioting in the streets of the US demanding regime change as we’re seeing in Tunisia and Egypt as was suggested above. At least not anytime soon. For all of the US’s monumental problems, its fundamentals are still strong enough, for now, to preclude blood in the streets.

Maybe not rioting, but certainly wanting to see a future that the US is not governed by corruption, corporatism, Israel first/US second, war-hawks, keeping 700-1000 troops overseas etc., siding with dictators that is nice to US interests (Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, etc) but not siding dictators that doesn’t value the same interest as the US by either Democrats and Republicans.

The founding father’s fundamentals is nearly gone.

January 31, 2011 @ 4:59 am | Comment

Thank God China never sucks up to corrupt dictators and unsavory regimes.

January 31, 2011 @ 6:04 am | Comment

@Jason – If there is ever trouble in the US, it will not come from people marching in the streets. It will come from lone-gun assassinations, religious fundamentalism and no-nothing secessionism. Fortunately I don’t know any American who thinks it is at all likely to ever get that bad.

January 31, 2011 @ 6:44 am | Comment

Regime collapse in China is more unlikely now than ever. Nevertheless, people who believe that the Party-state can’t collapse are kidding themselves. A prolonged crisis (internal or domestic) leading to political crisis and factionalism could completely undo things – and not necessarily for the better.

It’s true that the regime has spent the last 20 years doing nothing so well as consolidating its hold on government, politics, and the security/military apparatus. Even so, there’s a reason that Hu Jintao and the rest of the Party leadership spend so much time reiterating to military leaders that the PLA is the Party’s military, not China’s(i.e., the PLA’s primary loyalty is to the CCP, not China).

If things get really bad in China (e.g., prolonged economic hardship + corruption as far as the eye can see + continued inequality + a precipitating crisis of some sort), protests of the sort taking place in Egypt could happen in China. Such protests could lead to massive and sudden political change in the PRC – and a new “New China.”

Richard: “There is more than one China. China is rich, and China is poor. The rich side has vast amounts of money to spend, which often brings employment to the poor who migrate to do the work.”

Way to quote Reagan, Richard. In 2008, the IMF estimated that 37 percent of Chinese survived on US$2 per day. Extend that to US$5 and the number must approach one billion. Only 150 million Chinese (12 percent of the population) make US$10,000 year or more. (Interestingly, the average annual salary in both Beijing and Shanghai is US$10,000, meaning that the income of the average Beijinger and Shanghainese belongs to the top 12 percent.) A number of economists and sociologists are now saying that China’s Gini coefficient has surpassed 50. There’s nothing very miraculous about the “China miracle” – obscene wealth at the top built upon the equally obscene poverty of a billion people.

Note: I’m in Hawaii now with a number of Chinese friends. They keep asking me, “Where’s the economic crisis?!” Funny. Now they understand what I meant when I said that Sanya really shouldn’t be called “The Hawaii of China.” Driving buy a group of homeless guys sleeping in a park, my Chinese friends couldn’t get over the fact that the guys all had tents and sleeping bags. It seems that Americans and Australians (see last year’s Lowy poll) are not the only ones who mistakenly believe that China is the new top dog.

January 31, 2011 @ 6:46 am | Comment

@Richard – It is important not to exaggerate the significance of Shanghai and Beijing. Between them they house about 2% of China’s population – the majority of China’s urban population lives in cities like Bengbu, Anhui province, or Yancheng, Jiangsu province, and works with pay and conditions which have, at least according to one study, not improved at all in the last ten years.

January 31, 2011 @ 7:02 am | Comment

I’m well aware of the poverty of the vast majority of the Chinese. As I said, there is a rich China and a poor China. The poor are the majority. but the wealth on the other end is immense enough to allow a huge social safety net that keeps the people from revolution. Of course, this revolution can happen if there’s a wave of inflation or another serious economic crisis; the safety net would be entirely inadequate. For the immediate future this seems unlikely, but who knows?

This quote from China Shakes the World puts the rich/poor China dichotomy into perspective:

Although China is poised to overtake the UK to become the world’s fourth largest economy, on a per capita basis it ranks just above the world’s poorest nations, with an average income of just over $1,000 a year. Even if the country’s gross domestic product one day becomes as large as that of the US, simple mathematics ordains that its people at that time will on average be only one-sixth as wealthy as Americans.

So I have no illusions about China’s poverty, and how its citizens’ wealth compares to that of Americans’. Still, what keeps it from melting down like Tunisia has been, for many, government largess that keeps people working, even if for only $20 a week. As long as that’s acceptable, things might just keep chugging along. If however, inflation rears its head and makes $20 a week wholly untenable, then we may see the house of cards come crashing down.

January 31, 2011 @ 7:03 am | Comment

FOARP, we’ll have to see if this poverty in the backwaters of China, which has existed since time immemorial, will lead to revolution in 2011. I remain highly skeptical. The government is well aware of the crushing poverty, and can probably continue containing it just as they always have. Inflation is the catalyst that can make it uncontainable, so once we see it become life-threatening (i.e., when people can’t afford to eat), all bets are off.

January 31, 2011 @ 7:07 am | Comment

Some figures on the wealth divide.

Keep in mind that the really wealthy classes also hold a considerable amount of undeclared grey income.

Got to agree that inflation will be the key determinant which, if not checked, will only hit the total have-nots, but will also kill the bank accounts of the middle classes, whose support the govt is striving to maintain (with its narrative of harmony or anarchy).

On a more general note, comparing Tunisia and Egypt with China is a ***totally futile exercise***. Sure, there is a common denominator – autocratic corrupt regimes grounded on efficient police apparatuses – but that doesn’t say much. Tunisia and Egypt have been static economic entities for the majority for past thirty years, while China has been everything but.

January 31, 2011 @ 7:48 am | Comment

Apologies…inefficiency here. Since everybody is in the numbers game, there are 64 million unoccupied apartments in China today, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

This pans out at 1 unoccupied apartment for every 22 people approx. This beggars the imagination.

January 31, 2011 @ 8:12 am | Comment

Zero chance barring a truly calamitous event.

Chinese people seem to buy into the “it’s either dictatorship or chaos” (false) dichotomy more than their counterparts on the Arab street. Chinese writers and intellectuals and media are utterly supine compared to counterparts elsewhere. (Nationalistically echoing government talking points like the fenqing do on the WSJ or Economist comment sections doesn’t count). China’s state-dominated “market” economy has created a sizable middle class, but most of these people are ultimately beholden to the party state for their livelihood. It is impossible to overstate the role of state-controlled media in neutering a population and destroying habits of independent thought.

January 31, 2011 @ 8:47 am | Comment

I’m split on this. I think what @Mia said, “My 2cents as a Chinese journo: While the urban population has no appetite for any kind of social unrest, the rural population has already been pushed very close to the edge” expresses my not nearly as educated opinions on the matter.

There is plenty of unrest in China. What there doesn’t seem to be is any kind of massive, organized movement or sentiment toward demanding national regime change. The whole central government versus local government dichotomy at work that others have mentioned, where problems are perceived more as local issues than national structural ones.

January 31, 2011 @ 8:56 am | Comment

WILL it happen in China?
Extremely highly doubt it. It’s happening in Egypt in part because the Egyptian army doesn’t seem to quite yet know where it stands on the whole matter, and is thus allowing it to continue, for now. The PLA would be far less indecisive if anything even began to look like it might possibly happen, since, as has been said, it is an arm of the CCP and not an institution of Chinese people. Unless the PLA military leadership does a complete about-face wrt her political masters, or unless Chinese people become completely amnestic about 1989 (well, at least those who know about it), Beijing will not be looking like Cairo.

COULD it happen in China?
The CCP seems to think it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility, hence the info blackout. The plight of the average Egyptian seems not entirely dissimilar to that of the average (especially rural) Chinese. Maybe the CCP doesn’t want the average disenchanted Chinese to get any ideas. Or perhaps she is just acting out of an abundance of caution.

Would it happen somewhere in “the west” before it ever came close to happening in China?
Pretty unlikely that it would happen in CHina. Equally unlikely that it would happen in the west. As corrupt as some democratic governments may be, and as disenchanted as some “westerners” may think they are with their elected governments, there is still an enormous gulf before those aspects reach anything near Egyptian levels. Besides, “western governments” can be removed at the ballot box. And I doubt there is much appetite for a non-democratic system of governance.

January 31, 2011 @ 1:58 pm | Comment

Like Mia said, only the rural Chinese are truly fed up, and they can hardly take on the party as they lack everything: brains, coordination, weapons, means of communication, money etc.

The CCP is safe. For now.

January 31, 2011 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

About riots in the US: as far as I’m aware there’s never been a big one. Ever. And there never will be, either, just because of the way the country’s been built. Riots are a city phenomenon, they feed on the power of crowds and they can only thrive on barricades. Or the US is a suburban nation. Very few cities.

Riots can’t happen in the US for many reasons, the foremost of which are geographic. Where are you going to get all the people for a riot in frickin’ Arizona or Missouri? Have them all drive to a rally place? You’d have a traffic jam, not a riot. Then what? Go and burn the local strip mall? What would be the point?

You can have a puny riot I guess in a few neighborhoods in NYC and maybe Chicago, San Fran, Boston. But those places are unrepresentative of the US population… Marches on Washington have been tried but the law enforcement presence is always overwhelming there, and again, you’d have to bring in the rioters from hundreds or thousands of miles away…

No cities, no riot.

January 31, 2011 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

@ Poet # 54. All those things you mention are not necessary. All they need is a basic farm tool, shovel, panga etc and hatred in their heart. Its like offing the better off neighbours/village cadres who have bigger houses, cars and are sending their children to first tier city schools. Past slighs and humiliations come to the fore, and after the first shedding of blood, there arent any very good reasons for returning to the status quo.

Down trodden peasantry are pretty similar the world over. There is a point of no return, and then it becomes a very visceral experience once the spark is lit. If successful, its cathartic, cleansing and empowering. This sort of rural insurrection does not involve a long-term business plan, but it is highly selective, based as it is on ideas of community justice/retribution.

January 31, 2011 @ 5:35 pm | Comment

@King Tubby

Well – I was talking about successful regime-changing mass riots. Of course riots can happen in China and in fact do happen all the time.

Think of Iran – there were huge riots there not long ago; the government won; many rioters ended up very badly (I believe Iran is even now breaking new records in terms of executions) and the regime is more entrenched than ever.

I think the regime in China is much stronger than the one in Iran and if even the Iranian one can’t be overthrown by mass protests… you see my point.

January 31, 2011 @ 6:31 pm | Comment

@Resident Poet – I seem to remember a certain American city requiring the deployment of soldiers to restore order back in ’92. Likewise, the 60’s saw soldiers being deployed to restore order in an American city on at least one occasion, with gunfire even being exchanged. Rioting in major cities is a possibility in the cities of the United States, just as it is in London or Paris. However, this is usually racially motivated, and not specifically directed against the government.

@Richard – I’m not clear as to what you are referring to when you talk about China having a “huge social safety net”. As far as I am aware, no such substatial safety net exists. Unemployment benefits are derisory, healthcare is expensive, education is expensive. Even the government’s target of ensuring free access to primary school education in the countryside by 2010 (surely the easiest target to reach)has not been met, and of course there is no target for the cities. The ridiculous idea of using CTM to give cheap healthcare to those in the country who were too poor to afford modern (i.e., real) healthcare (i.e., almost everyone in the countryside) was floated for a while, but thankfully shot down. And, as said, if you’re referring to New Deal-style massive public works, Egypt at least has these in spades (and picks, and shovels).

January 31, 2011 @ 7:21 pm | Comment

I guess my objection to those who say that such a revolt “couldn’t” or “won’t” happen in modern-day China is that, when it comes right down to it, Chinese people are the same as people in any other country. To suggest that there is some special feature of the Chinese mentality which allows them to endure and love dictatorship borders on the kind of racial mysticism that I have always found quite distasteful. Chinese people are human beings, no more, no less.

Richard says that the Chinese are habituated to dictatorship, but if this is true of the Chinese it is even more true of the Egyptians. We are told that the Chinese support their government, but we have seen great outpourings of affection for the rulers of Egypt from the people in the past (for Naser before ’67, or Sadat after the Yom Kippur war, or for Mubarak after Sadat’s assasination). Other than a 3% difference in the annual rate of GDP growth, there is no great economic reason for the what may very well be the impending downfall of the Egyptian government. Egypt has attempted to bribe people with their own money to the same extent that many other countries have, there is no exceptional difference to China in this.

The real cause, in as much as it is possible to distinguish it, is Mubbarak’s 20-year grip on power. Next year Hu and Wen will most likely hand over power to Xi and Li. No doubt in a little while nationalist websites will be cooing over “Grandpa Li”, who will inevitably assume the mantle of Zhou Enlai to Xi’s strong-man pose. At somepoint, though, the Chinese people will tire of having no say in this baton-passing between generations of communist dictators. At that moment, whoever is in power will be faced with the same problems that Mubbarak has now.

January 31, 2011 @ 8:04 pm | Comment


1) Mubbarak has 30 years reign, not 20 years reign. Mubbarak has not being popular in Egypt for years

2) You also assume that Xi and Li has extension of Hu and Wen. They are not. Hu and Wen has very much different agenda from prior regime. Xi and Li will have too.

3) I know you like to throw the term “dictators” a lot. In the classic sense, they are not. They are “first men among the equal”. They don’t have absolute power. China is best described as single party rule or rule by committee.

4) Everything has cost. Revolutionary will post huge cost to average Chinese. Just looks at Iraqi and its revolution. What China needs is to have civil society, better law and order.

5) Despite what media said, Chinese government is response to Chinese citizen and create many policies to appease the mass.

January 31, 2011 @ 9:38 pm | Comment

@Jim1980 –

1) 30 years, my bad. A ten-year rolling dictatorship is better, but not by much.

2) I assume that Xi and Li will try to maintain continuity with Hu and Wen to the same degree that Hu and Wen did with Jiang and Zhu. So just as Zhu is remembered as a humourous uncle/grandpa like figure, and Wen as a kindly grandpa-type, Li will no doubt aim to do the same. It hardly seems wrong to link this to the public image that the man who defined the role of premier in the PRC – Zhou Enlai – as a kindly defender of the Chinese people. Likewise, it hardly seems controversial to suggest that PRC presidents have traditionally been hawkish figures – Jiang in ’96, Hu with the “Anti-secession law” (AKA baldly threatening invasion if the Taiwanese people make a decision which is, by all global norms, their democratic right to make), and Xi’s pronunciamento in Mexico.

This is a discussion of public image, not necessarily of policy. In policy areas, we have little to go on. Since there will be no election and the decision as to who will assume the leadership has already been made, they do not need to tell the public what it is that they will actually do once they have power.

3) Yeah “primus inter pares”, but who are the “pares”? Not the people of China, this is certain, nor the membership of the CCP – not according to any party member I have ever spoken to. The politburo? I do not believe so – when since Tiananmen have we ever seen the paramount leadership challenged by politburo members? As far as I can see, the only “equals” that Hu and Wen have in the PRC are each other, and even in that relationship, it is clear that Hu is the superior – the censorship of Wen’s speeches shows that he is not at Hu’s level.

4) Obviously there is cost in everything, even in the maintenance of the CCP dictatorship, there is a cost. To some degree civil society, law and order can be created under the CCP, but this development will be stunted until a system which gives rise to extreme license is swept away.

Taiwan is an example of a society in which even the president can be put on trial for wrong-doing, but when will Hu, Wen, or Jiang ever face such sanction? Or do you believe that Jiang Zemin is entirely innocent of abusing his position for personal gain? I would say that any reasonable analysis of the Jiang years shows that he was at times willing to bend the rules to favour cronies and girlfriends (Song Zuying anyone?). Even if the worst of Jiang’s Shanghai cronies have been called to account for wrong-doing, he will not.

5) I presume you mean the foreign media? According to the Chinese media all the government does is “response to Chinese citizen and create many policies to appease the mass”, yet the majority of Chinese people I have spoken to do not believe this, and most can cite personal examples where this is not the case.

January 31, 2011 @ 10:31 pm | Comment

Many China watchers I deal with now look at the Jiang-Zhu era as the high-water mark of reform, at least in the economic realm, from which Hu has backtracked considerably and allowed an expansion of state control. They reckon economic liberalization stopped in about 2003 and that most of China’s trade friction with the outside world flows from a turn away from market-friendly approaches to a nakedly mercantilistic state capitalism. (Small issues like the currency that excite some US Congressmen are but symptoms of the overall approach). Unwillingness to reform politics puts a ceiling on how far economic reform can really go, because lifting the state hand on the economy hurts vast entrenched interests. This flows less from design than from weaknesses on Hu’s part: He is not a decisive leader but a skillful balancer of factional interests within the ruling clique. These central players compete not over ideology, but over which sectors of the economy their offspring and families control. China is a dictatorship without actual dictators. All of them believe they must hang together or face the prospect of hanging separately. There is an almost caste-like barrier between “guan” and “min” at every level of government that predates Communist Party rule.

Li Keqiang was Hu’s favored candidate to succeed him, but was pipped by Xi back in 2007 because Xi did a better job of reaching out to different interest groups. (Like Bill Clinton in the US, Xi has had his eye on the top political prize since his youth and used every family connection and every job to put his network in place.) Li was limited by too close association with the Communist Youth League, and its reputation for producing cautious, bureaucratic time servers.

The stern and professionally correct Li will not be Wen’s kind of warm-and-fuzzy uncle. Xi is outgoing and confident but will have elders looking over his shoulder. One probably good thing about Xi and Li is that, compared to their predecessors, they have no special feeling for Russia or Cold War-ingrained suspicions of the West.

China’s leadership is largely locked in until 2022. We will have to look to the 6th generation, heavy with overseas PhDs and well-traveled officials, for any real potential signs of more liberal rule. At the same time, this age group is more steeped in the nationalism that is arguably China’s most striking ideological feature in this era.

If I were betting on outcomes, I’d look for an evolution along the lines of 1960-90 Japan, with a ruling party co-opting every salient social movement and group, permanent bureaucratic rule, popular voting to ratify elite choices, and intra-party competition and factional deal-making as the main form of political competition. The Japan system also offered significant civil liberties and freedom of assembly and expression within a paternalistic political culture. I’m not sure the CCP can get its head around the idea of “loyal opposition parties” or independent newspapers, so perhaps an enlarged Singapore is what is in store for the PRC politically.

January 31, 2011 @ 11:38 pm | Comment


The two riots you mention were both in LA, 1965 and 1992, both as a reaction to police brutality. Nothing to do with Washington and the political system, really…

Also, both riots lasted almost a week and yet there were less than 100 dead in both combined. You might think that’s a lot but when you think of the LA murder rate in those years (and gun ownership rates), really, the riots just increased a bit the average number of murders for a week. That’s it. According to the US had almost 24,000 murders in 1992 🙂

My point is that the US has never had “serious” riots. The ones they’ve had involved a tiny, tiny sliver of the US population in a few neighborhoods in two or three cities. The biggest one according to Wikipedia was in response to the murder of Martin Luther King and even then I don’t think there were more than 50 dead. Not much to show for more than two centuries of history and for all that ammo they pack!

February 1, 2011 @ 12:15 am | Comment

@Resident Poet – Well, and this is reaching back in time a bit, but there were the draft riots in New York back in 1863, and those most defintely were sparked by government policy, max 2000 killed, although the number was probably less.

It’s not that I believe that anti-government rioting is likely in the US, but absolutely impossible? I wouldn’t go that far.

February 1, 2011 @ 12:31 am | Comment


I believe we are in complete agreement. Yes, drafting people to fight for the rights of black people would cause riots even today 🙂

February 1, 2011 @ 12:34 am | Comment

Declarations of the Egyptian Army

“We will never use force against these people”
“Peaceful freedom of expression is guaranteed for everybody”

A real peoples’s army

Reminds me of Portugal carnation revolution.

February 1, 2011 @ 4:25 am | Comment

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Here’s a decent checklist on Mubarak, and running China through it, I don’t see much similarity, although some complaints of Egyptians are certainly shared by segments of China’s population.

February 4, 2011 @ 2:23 am | Comment

Asia Times view

February 7, 2011 @ 9:17 am | Comment

China has a pre-tax high-income/low-income gap, not a rich/poor gap.

It amazes me how confounded these two statistics are, given how financially savvy people like to think they are nowadays.

February 7, 2011 @ 9:38 am | Comment

Got to agree with those who see this happening in China as highly unlikely. The problem is one of scale. The taxi drvers in one city may be very unhappy over the very same issues as the factory worker on the opposite side to the country – but they have to connection to each other. Many of such smaller groups would have to come together to make a difference. And, has been pointed out, the PLA would take action long before this could happen.

I also believe there is great reluctance to oppose the CCP without knowing what would take its place. The chaos/CCP argument works because there is no opposition offering any other options.

Richard, smart move on investing in agriculture stocks. Keep an eye on the increase in corn acreage. More corn means less food. The increased corn demand is coming from the ethanol industry. This will continue to drive up the price of corn. Higher corn prices and lower food crop production will continue to make your agristocks more valuable. No secret straegies, evil conspiracies, etc. Just market forces. As you’ve noted.

February 11, 2011 @ 12:14 am | Comment

Could it happen in North Korea?

February 25, 2011 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

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