China has its hands full with domestic priorities

The China Post news staff

Over the last few weeks, the mainland Chinese government has put on a show of force. Police officers, both plain-clothed and uniformed, are on patrol in major cities in a bid to nip any “Jasmine Revolution” in the bud. But, those hoping for the blossoming of a Chinese variation of the uprisings seen in the Arab world have thus far been disappointed; aside from roughing up some foreign journalists and arresting an activist or two, China’s streets have remained calm. On the surface, China seems like a ripe candidate for a “people power” rebellion; income inequality is massive, corruption is rampant, an independent judicial system has yet to evolve and the rights of the individual run a distant second to the needs of big business.

So why aren’t the people taking to the streets of Tiananmen Square again? Unlike an impoverished 25-year-old resident of Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, a poor 25-year-old citizen of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) generally believes that tomorrow will be better than today. China is working hard to rid itself of extreme poverty and the results are hard to argue with. Official statistics from China’s “China Daily” newspaper claim that at the end of 2009, there were almost 36 million Chinese people living below the poverty line; but that number represents just 3.6 percent of China’s rural population. The World Bank says the percentage of China’s people living below the international poverty line (those living on US$1.25 or less per day) fell from 10.3 percent in 2004 to 4 percent in 2007, an impressive performance by any standard. Aside from persuading the majority of its citizens that their lot is improving, China has been wise in one other important way as well. While still an authoritarian state, modern Chinese leaders have stuck to terms of approximately a decade, not 42 years like Libya’s Gaddafi. A Libyan young person has had one leader since their birth; seeing the same face for decades does not help a young, unemployed population have faith in their nation’s future. China’s heads of state toe the party line, but each change of leadership has a modernizing effect that inspires confidence. Despite China’s revolutionary past, the word “revolution” for many Chinese isn’t glorious. Instead, it conjures up images of the chaotic and senselessly violent period of Chinese history ironically named the “Cultural Revolution.” Many in China look to the Middle East today and see chaos rather than freedom. Even those who might be critical of their rulers in Beijing shudder to think of China descending into the free-for-all political mayhem that Egypt is experiencing or the violence of Libya’s mini civil war. China will not be undergoing a repeat of the Tiananmen Square protests any time soon. But that doesn’t mean that all is well in the world’s most populous nation. China’s leaders remember all too well that the original sparks for the demonstrations in 1989 were economic pressures such as inflation, rising food costs and unemployment. Food prices and drought are again putting the squeeze on China’s poor, but unlike repressive Arab regimes, China’s government can at least make a credible case that it is doing something about these problems. China is unlikely to erupt in the short term, but the simmering issues of income disparity, a lack of basic services such as safe drinking water, medical care and education coupled with separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang mean that for the foreseeable future, China will have its hands full as it juggles a dozen explosive domestic issues. China knows its priorities are domestic, which is why the PRC spent more than US$83 billion on internal security forces in 2010; a figure even higher than the over US$81 billion it spent on national defense. The world shouldn’t bet on a meltdown in China, but it remains to be seen if “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is sustainable in the long term.