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.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 75 Comments

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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