Will China have an Arab Spring?

There has been much talk about whether or not China is vulnerable to the sort of mass protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s government here in Egypt. The Chinese leadership apparently thinks it is. In recent weeks, Beijing has engaged in a tight-fisted crackdown on any perceived form of dissent – informal church groups, the international media, and most notably, outspoken artist Ai Wei Wei, who has been detained for alleged economic crimes. We can only speculate about the causes of such suppression – could it be linked to next year’s change of leadership? – but it is reasonable to assume, based on the timing, that Beijing is reacting to what’s happening in Egypt and its neighbors. The lesson Chinese officials seem to be learning is that it is dangerous to leave any potential source of anti-government activism uncrushed, no matter how harmless it may appear to be at the moment.

That, however, is the wrong lesson. I’m not going to claim any special powers to predict the future – who, after all, could have foreseen the “Arab spring” only a few months ago? – but I think China has little reason to worry about a similar uprising. And that is because of its superior economic performance. Yes, China is a seething mass of social dislocation brought about by rapid economic change. But it’s that same economic success that makes China different from the Middle East, and thus less susceptible to an “Arab spring”-style uprising. …

[T]he real challenge to China’s leadership is not an uprising by those frustrated with or not benefiting from the political system, as in the Middle East, but by the people the Communist Party has helped become rich. If the Communist Party wants to maintain power, it has to change. But the recent crackdown by Beijing shows the government is unaware of the lessons of Korea. Unreformed political regimes can’t survive in reformed economies.