China’s authoritarian regime shared many of the same characteristics and challenges as the Arab autocracies, so why did an ‘Arab Spring’ never materialize in Beijing?, asks a leading political scientist.
The collapse of regimes like Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt, which many considered “an exemplar of…durable authoritarianism” was a salient reminder to many that such revolutions are “inherently unpredictable,” writes Stephen Hess, a specialist on contentious politics in authoritarian regimes.
Before long some began to speculate that the protest movements might spread to authoritarian states outside the Arab world, including China. Indeed, the Chinese government was among those that feared the unrest would spread to China because, as one observer noted, China faced the same kind of “social and political tensions caused by rising inequality, injustice, and corruption” that plagued much of the Arab world on the eve of the uprisings.
One set of explanations has centered on social and economic drivers. According to this reasoning, unrest in the region was driven by a highly discontented and mobilized society. Youth unemployment and official corruption enraged Arab citizens and the diffusion of new communications technologies, particularly social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, enabled individuals to channel these grievances into effective anti-regime collective action.
One shortcoming of this explanation is that the same sources of discontent and social media websites are available throughout the developing world, but successful revolutions are rare.
So why have Chinese citizens trended towards localized protests rather than the national protest movements seen in the Arab spring? As discussed in an important body of research, one source of this difference is linked to the structure of the state itself. In China, unlike most autocracies, the state is highly decentralized. Local governments are given a substantial level of autonomy over development policies as well as social management – decisions related to dealing with popular challengers through repression or alternatively, the extension of concessions.
Since local authorities make decisions over the carrots and sticks used to address the demands of citizens with a high degree of autonomy, these officials rather than the national leadership or regime are the primary target of most protest actions. In fact, it is a common phenomenon in China that aggrieved locals will appeal to central authorities for assistance against corrupt local officials. Thus, the struggles faced by everyday Chinese are often directed at particular local officials and local issues, limiting the desire of protestors to take the dangerous leap of coordinating their actions across local communities to challenge the regime itself.
As a consequence, much like the Middle East, the years 2011 and 2012 have been ones characterized by very high levels of protest activities in China. However, because of the decentralized nature of the Chinese state, these battles have been ones won and lost by claimants contesting local officials rather than challenging the regime itself.
Steve Hess is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and East Asian & Pacific Rim Studies at the University of Bridgeport’s College of Public and International Affairs. He is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming article in the International Political Science Review, “From the Arab Spring to the Chinese Winter,” from which this piece in The Diplomat was adapted.