The fragility of autocrats

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 February, 2011, 12:00am

How stable and confident is a nation that prevents internet users searching for the words 'Egypt' and 'Tunisia'? In democracies, no one feels the need to block news from North Africa, but in China the government won't allow people to know what's going on. This is hardly surprising, because what autocracies fear most is contagion from popular movements.

They fear contagion because while confidently asserting that their regimes will last forever, in their heart of hearts, autocrats are aware of the fragility of governments that have no mechanism for change aside from popular revolt.

Dictatorships tend to end with astonishing speed. The entire Soviet bloc disintegrated in a couple of years but its component parts fell much more quickly. Arguably the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe, the Albanian regime of Enver Hoxha, which seemed to have total control, was swept away in remarkably short order by people who had never known democracy but latched on to developments in neighbouring countries.

China, we are repeatedly told, is different. Apparently, water flows in another direction on the mainland, and the entire experience of human history has no relevance to the Chinese people. You can almost hear the weary old cliches being wheeled out with the ghastly predictability of knowing the outcome of a crash the split second before it happens.

First up is the idiotic assertion that Chinese people are uniquely uninterested in politics. There's a glimmer of truth here in as much as, like the mass of people everywhere in the world, the Chinese are basically uninterested in politics most of the time but can become very interested at specific moments. The Chinese Communist Party should perhaps look to its own history to see how it managed to mobilise millions of people for political purposes.

Secondly, the Chinese are said to be different because they crave stability above all else. Again it should be stressed that the desire for stability is hardly a singular Chinese characteristic. Throughout the world, people prefer what they know and what they are used to as opposed to the uncertainties of change. Yet there comes a time when the familiar is no longer acceptable.

This is why many millions of Chinese people uproot themselves and travel around the nation and beyond for a better life, and this is why the Chinese have embraced the ending of the command economy with such fervour, plunging into hitherto unknown forms of speculation to try their luck in the capitalist system. These are not the hallmarks of a people resistant to change.

It is the very pace of this economic development and the material benefits that have resulted which produces the third clich?d explanation of why China is uniquely immune to regime change. It is argued that this is the only one-party state that has brought prosperity to its people and continues to deliver the economic goods. Let us set aside the obvious fallacy that economic growth can continue forever and concentrate on what has come in its wake. The flagrant gap between the rich and the poor seems to widen by the day, and it is widely believed that most of those with money have managed to get rich by dubious means. Corruption is a scourge of the nation, and widespread revulsion against cronyism is evident.

When everyone was poor and misery seemed to be equally shared, there was less complaint; now, some people have become spectacularly rich and the masses remain resolutely poor - it is this discrepancy that breeds discontent. If it were true that economic growth would hold back revolt, why do more protests occur in China's more prosperous regions than anywhere else?

And this brings us to another great myth, that popular unrest in China is insignificant and that the people have no stomach for defying the authorities. Precise information about unrest, particularly in more remote areas, is hard to obtain. But the growing phenomenon of remarkably large flash protests is now well established. Figures for what the Chinese authorities call 'mass incidents' are always out of date and likely to be understated, but they show a clear progression. Some 10,000 of these mass incidents were officially recorded in 1995; 14 years later, the figure is estimated to be over 90,000.

The reality is that protests are taking place throughout the nation, as they were indeed in Egypt before the upheaval triggered by the Tunisian revolt. But in China (except in Xinjiang and Tibet), these local protests are largely overlooked.

So, what does it take for these small bonfires to become an inferno? There is no trite answer but history shows that dictatorships are far more fragile than they appear.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur