In October 2011 China’s state-run newspaper China Daily published an op-ed by former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema about the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests which erupted in 2010 across the Muslim world. D’Alema wrote:
The Arab upheavals are a by-product of the inexorable process of globalization in the twenty-first century … Only by fully understanding the demands and grievances of these Arab revolutionaries will the West be able to give the region appropriate support – and this support is critical. The Arab revolts have not been directed against the West – on the contrary, they have been fed by Western democratic principles and values – but they could yet produce a reactionary backlash.
Western countries’ support must be unambiguous. The Arab peoples must see clearly that the EU and the US genuinely intend to sustain Arabs’ demands for democracy, freedom of speech, and economic opportunity. In short, the region’s people must have evidence of the West’s interest in establishing their right to human dignity and higher standards of living.
It may seem astounding that a media outlet controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) published an article by a Western politician that endorsed democracy. How can that be explained?
“The Arab Spring unnerved Chinese leaders more than any event in years,” says Evan Osnos in his book Age of Ambition. Yet the CCP was unprepared for this unprecedented challenge and did not know how to respond to it.
The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the CCP, ran a piece in 2011 which stated that China’s media went “through some short-term confusion on the cognition of this matter” [the Arab Spring]. The piece noted that it was difficult to discern whether the “newly established regimes in the [Arab] countries have democratic, Islamic or nationalistic characteristics, as well as what policy directions they will take.”
Although the article denounced Western “manipulation”, it did not entirely condemn the democratic upheavals.
Throughout the era of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao (2003-2013), China’s stance towards democracy was somewhat ambivalent. Scholar Zhu Zhiqun argued in a 2010 book that Hu and Wen “accepted liberal values such as human rights and rule of law as ‘universal values.'”
This doesn’t mean that the Hu-Wen administration wanted to introduce democratic reforms. However, they tolerated a certain degree of free speech and did not promote propaganda work that intruded too much into citizens’ private sphere. Furthermore, the CCP promised that Hong Kong would achieve universal suffrage in the not too distant future.
The Arab Spring took place in the course of the power transition to the new leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. It is impossible to know what happened within the ranks of the CCP as the country struggled to confront the momentous events in the Muslim world. What we know is that upon assuming the leadership, Xi Jinping embarked on an unprecedented crackdown on dissent, on a massive anti-corruption campaign, and on a series of propaganda campaigns not seen in China since the Mao Zedong era.
Xi Jinping’s power grab came as a surprise to many observers who had accepted the notion that the CCP had consolidated a form of collective leadership aimed at preventing the rise of another autocrat like Mao. People believed that in the age of consumerism and individualism no Communist politician could amass so much power without any visible resistance from prominent Party cadres as well as from society. But Xi succeeded in doing so within a short period of time. We shall argue that the rise and fall of democratic movements through Africa and the Middle East facilitated Xi’s dictatorial coup and weakened the more liberal factions within the CCP.
First of all, the fall of dictators Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya, which was reminiscent of the fate of deposed Communist leaders in the late 1980s, threw the CCP into panic. They must have feared that preserving the Communist government was more important than supporting liberal values. Therefore, people like Wen Jiabao lost leverage in the face of the existential threat posed by popular mass movements. As Evan Osnos explains, the CCP drew from the Arab Spring the same conclusion they drew from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests: the state must suppress the demonstrations or else be annihilated.
Second, the Arab Spring ended up in failure. With the exception of Tunisia, the protest movements did not usher in an era of democracy, but resulted in chaos and civil strife. The West’s support of the protesters reinforced the argument that Western intervention is dangerous and destabilizing. How could anyone in the CCP stop Xi Jinping and advance liberal values after what happened in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya? The refugee crisis that followed the outbreak of the civil war in Syria weakened democratic values in the West itself, leading to the rise of populist movements.
Thus the CCP hardened its stance towards democratic reform both in mainland China and in Hong Kong.
Chinese media soon changed their moderate tone. In a 2015 article China Daily criticized the Arab Spring and its Western backers. “The ‘Arab Spring’ has caused a multitude of miseries in the Arab countries concerned,” the piece quoted a Shanghai researcher as saying, “because it brought more trouble to those countries that managed to go through a power transition – the constant fights between tribes, religious sects, and various political forces. More, most affected countries are struggling to boost their sluggish economies, with the interim governments failing to govern and the West falling short in providing financial aid.”
When in 2014 Xi Jinping was confronted with his own internal pro-democracy protests, the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, he rejected compromise and pressured the Hong Kong authorities to suppress movements that challenge CCP one-party rule. The failure of the Arab Spring and of Western foreign policy in Africa and the Middle East thus became a powerful propaganda tool in the hands of the most reactionary forces within the CCP.
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