Could a Tunisian fruit vendor's self-immolation spark political turmoil -- in China? That may be less far-fetched than it sounds. Revolutionaries have always inspired each other, from French san-culottes channeling Thomas Paine to South American Marxists embracing Chairman Mao. And as recent events in Egypt show, civic anger these days is viral; it shows little respect for frontiers.
Noted economic historian Barry Eichengreen, for one, thinks Beijing should worry. He sees parallels between the dire political and economic conditions that lit the fuse in Cairo and circumstances in China.
Although both countries have enjoyed strong growth in recent years, wealth is poorly distributed, while college graduates have limited employment opportunities. Both nations are autocracies infested with corruption. Each state also must contend with masses of lesser-skilled migrants facing even dimmer prospects, a tinderbox of political resentment. Eichengreen writes:
Given the lack of political freedoms, the Chinese government's legitimacy rests on its ability to deliver improved living standards and increased economic opportunity to the masses. So far those masses have little to complain about. But that could change, and suddenly....The high cost of hunger
If Chinese officials don't move faster to channel popular grievances and head off potential sources of disaffection, they could eventually be confronted with an uprising of their own â€" an uprising far broader and more determined than the student protest that they crushed in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Certainly the People's Republic seems anxious. The government has ordered all domestic media to restrict their coverage of events in Egypt to reports from the country's official news agency. Translating foreign stories is barred. China has also blocked users of Twitter-clones Sina, Tencent and Sohu from searching for the word "Egypt." Authorities there have even taken to paying people to stop distributing information about the unrest in North Africa. Said one Chinese activist:
"We do this (hand out leaflets) all the time, but the police believe it's an unusual time right now -- they don't want to let Chinese people know about the situation in North Africa," he said. "Most of the time, they tolerate us, but this information they cannot tolerate."China has sought to deal with another potential source of dissent behind the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: soaring food prices. Those have risen to record levels, according to the U.N. Perhaps seeking to defuse the popular discord that often accompanies rising food costs, the Chinese government has imposed price controls and restricted speculation in agricultural commodities.
See you in Pyongyang, comrade
To be sure, there are important differences between conditions in Egypt and in China. For the average Egyptian, life under President Hosni Mubarak has steadily gotten harder during his three decades in office. By contrast, notes political science prof Xiaoxing Yi of Marietta College in Ohio, many Chinese feel conditions on the Mainland are improving. He also makes an interesting distinction in contrasting Mubarak's iron grip on power with state rule in China:
Everyone in China and in the world is expecting that the current top leaders in Beijing will step down as scheduled, to be followed by an orderly rotation of leaders in 2012.That might strike anyone used to Western-style democracy, not to mention many Chinese political reformers, as specious. After all, China remains a dictatorship prone to brutally snuffing out challenges to its rule. But as Yi notes, at least leaders in the PRC regularly change. That enhances the national sense of political stability and decreases the likelihood that a head of state could become a lightning-rod for public anger.
If any Asian nation could in time follow Egypt to the barricades, I suspect it's another repressive regime in the region: North Korea. Its economy is in shambles, starvation is epidemic and the country is ruled by a despot whose concern for humanity makes Mubarak look like Jimmy Carter.
For now, organized protest in North Korea is out of the question. But one of the lessons of Egypt -- and of Mohamed Bouazizi's death -- is that no dictatorship lasts forever. Tyranny can live on for years. But when the fruit finally rots it tends to die in a hurry.
Image from flickr user Nick Bygon; thumbnail from Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0