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Will China walk like an Egyptian?

CARLOS BARRIA / Reuters

Hu Yi Xin, left, embraces her daughter Rong Xi as she arrives from Egypt at the Pudon International airport in Shanghai on Monday.

BEIJING - For nearly a week now, as much of the world remains riveted by the events unfolding in Egypt, China is making assiduous efforts to appear uninterested.

At least judging from what’s being reported and what’s being discussed here.

The political turmoil in Cairo has received barely a headline in the People’s Daily, the main Communist Party newspaper, or much coverage by Xinhua, the state-run news agency. And a quick thumb through issues of the China Daily since last Tuesday show the protests only made the front page a couple of times, and photographs from the streets of the Egyptian capital were conspicuously rare.

What has been written is sanitized and the focus is largely on lawlessness. “[W]e hope Egypt could restore social stability and normal order at an early date,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Sunday. 

The coverage also avoids details of the underlying political factors or the calls for democracy, with the demonstrations characterized generally as “anti-government” or “anti-American.”

Information online hasn’t been any more comprehensive. Over the weekend, searches for the word “Egypt” was discovered to have been banned on Weibo, the leading microblogging site run by Sina, and then from other Twitter-like sites and online discussion groups.     

No discussion of dissent
The tight restrictions on media coverage and Internet discussion of the protests in Egypt isn’t much of a surprise.  Beijing, after all, played from the same rulebook in July 2009 after riots broke out between ethnic Han Chinese and Uighurs in Xinjiang. Internet and cell phone services were immediately cut off in the northwestern province and were only reinstated very gradually over the following year. 

There’s been no public official pronouncement, of course, on the information restrictions, but an editorial in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper with strong nationalist leanings, reinforced the fact the Chinese government tolerates no discussion that might lead to questions about its supremacy:

“[D]emocracy has been accepted by most people. But when it comes to political systems, the Western model is only one of a few options. It takes time and effort to apply democracy to different countries, and to do so without the turmoil of revolution.”

The Chinese, of course, know a little something about the turmoil of revolution. The scars from China’s 20th century upheavals – the Great Leap Forward (1959-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), to name just two that caused the deaths of tens of millions – have left the Chinese government, and arguably the Chinese people, with little appetite for political instability.

At least that’s what some China-watchers are betting.

Is China next?
As the protests in Egypt entered their second or third day, and unrest appeared to spread to Lebanon and Yemen, foreign journalists began wondering aloud whether China would be next.  To some, it seemed obvious. The images of tanks rolling through the streets of Cairo, in particular, recalled the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and could well rekindle that kind of mass uprising in China.

In fact, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times arrived in Cairo’s Tahrir Square over the weekend and drew immediate comparisons to Tiananmen Square, which he’d covered for the newspaper. 

One reporter even point-blank asked U.S. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at a press conference: “Does the U.S. believe – or do you think that China should be concerned in any way about what’s happening in Egypt? Or do you think it’s – they're such completely different societies and that this is mostly an Arab-Muslim thing at this point?”

Here, in the land of China-watchers, the question provoked confident responses of “No.”

‘Churning change…’
While acknowledging “anything is possible,” Richard Burger, a PR specialist who has lived in Taiwan and the mainland, explained why he believed China is different.

“China has done a far better job than Egypt and Tunisia in terms of keeping people employed and placated,” said Burger. “Its public works projects and subsidies of Chinese businesses have helped keep unemployment in check and, unlike in Tunisia, the mood in China [is] wildly optimistic.”

C. Custer over at ChinaGeeks, a China-watcher’s blog, is more circumspect, noting that the chief reason for Beijing’s sensitivity to Egypt coverage is because “the protests in Egypt are motivated by factors that exist in China, too: wealth disparity, corruption, censorship, etc. Of course, China is not Egypt. But the spin machine is still running.”

At the New Yorker, however, Evan Osnos, who has experience both in Egypt and in China, noted, “For all of China’s problems these days, the simple fact is that the dominant sensation in China is the polar opposite of that in Egypt: China is a place of constant, dizzying, churning change…[T]he lives of average Chinese citizens continue to improve fast enough that they see no reason to upturn the system.”

At any rate, today saw slightly more coverage of Egypt in the Chinese media. In part, that came because Beijing issued a warning to its citizens not to travel to Egypt and made arrangements for some 500 Chinese travelers currently stranded in Egypt to be evacuated by plane.

Whether that is the only ripple effect remains to be seen. 

Melissa Phillip / AP

Doaa Khedr, with her daughter, Maryam Ali, 1, protests along with others outside the Egyptian Consulate in Houston, Texas on Sunday. Click here to view a slideshow.

See a slideshow world reactions to Egypt's protest

1 February Update:

One more China pundit enters the fray.  Christina Larson at Foreign Policy notes a few more features that set China apart.  "There is no widespread seething anger towards China's rulers equivalent to what exists in Tunisia and Egypt," she writes.  "In recent years, high-profile protests in China have erupted over specific grievances – ethnic tensions, land rights, environmental degradation among them – but they have not touched Beijing.”

But perhaps all this speculation is misdirected.  As Adam Minter writes, “It might be better – if not more empirical – to step back and ask whether China has sufficient, robust institutions whereby average Chinese citizens can vent their frustrations, anger, and grievances.”