Egyptian crisis may spur China leaders to tighten grip on power
Party leaders view the latest upheaval in the Middle East as a vindication of their policy of gradual reform and opening up to maintain stability
As demonstrations and street clashes again rock Egypt, many in China are watching closely to see what that will mean for the prospects of political reform at home.
Many on both sides of the democracy debate have hoped - and feared - that the Arab spring could inspire a similar popular movement in China. Beijing went so far as to curb the sale of jasmine blossoms in 2011 after the flower became a symbol of the Middle East uprisings.
Similarly, those in the Communist Party establishment seem to view the latest upheaval in Egypt - the Arab world's most populous country - as a vindication of its gradual path of reform and opening up which has kept democracy out of reach.
A commentary in the party-run Global Times says that the crisis facing Egypt has proved once again that a balance must be struck between reform, development and stability. Another published by the party's chief mouthpiece, the People's Daily, argued that democracy was no cure-all. It should be the final step, established only after economic development and social equality has been achieved.
"For developing countries, the mission of economic prosperity, social stability and national security is far more than adopting the Western-style 'one man, one vote' democracy," the commentary said. "If we reverse the order, and mistakenly believe that democracy is the perfect cure for problems, it would only make the situations more complicated."
In China, the turmoil in Egypt comes against the backdrop of widespread hopes that recently installed President Xi Jinping would strike out on a more liberal path than his predecessors and put the country on the road toward political reform.
But the ousting of democratically elected Egyptian president Mohammed Mursi in a military coup and the bloody protests that have followed has provided another example of the risks of political liberalisation for China's leaders.
"Chaos is what they sell to the people," said Roderic Wye, a London-based researcher at the Chatham House think tank's Asia Programme. "The downside of pro-democratic movements is chaos and uncertainty, while it's not necessarily leading to a better political outcome.
"The message is, 'Don't engage in these activities - it is not in your best interest and it will not do you any good'."
Such warnings resonate in China, where Confucian values that prescribe an inclination towards order remain strong. Many Chinese also fear that a return to the political chaos of previous eras could jeopardise the country's economic boom of the past three decades.
Zhang Lifan , a Beijing-based political commentator formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that Beijing may see the Egyptian situation as another argument for tightening its grip.
"A lesson provided by Egypt to the Chinese leadership is that they have to fully grab power," Zhang said. "The economy is facing a downturn now and Beijing leaders will find it more urgent to maintain stability. Any loss of power may make them collapse."
As in Egypt, the hard power in China lies with the military, answerable to the Communist Party, not the government.
Since being named party chief in November, Xi has signalled an interest in consolidating his control over the People's Liberation Army, visiting military commands, promoting austerity and ordering top officers to spend time in rank-and-file posts.
Professor Xiao Xian , director of Yunnan University's Institute of Western Asian Studies, said the crisis in Egypt proved that political reform must be pursued gradually.
"Any reforms that are implemented without proper orders will lead to a heavy price," Xiao said. "It would be a disaster to the entire world if such a chaotic situation happened in China."
Still, Dr Kerry Brown, director of Sydney University's China Studies Centre, notes that Beijing was committed to its stability policies long before the Arab spring. If anything, the Arab spring might have taught leaders the importance of controlling social media, Brown said.
"China is super cautious anyway," he said. "This might have reinforced it a bit. But there are already a million and one reasons why China would crack down [on dissent]. They don't need Egypt to justify it."
A more acute concern for Beijing may be what impact the events in Cairo could have on its economic interests in the Middle East.
"The pro-democratic movements in the Middle East have a huge impact and many countries are very worried about the rise of extremist ideology," said Dr Rohan Gunaratna at the Singapore-based think tank International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.
"Now, the Arab spring has become the Arab curse; the status quo has changed," Gunaratna said. "China's main imperative in Egypt is economic rather than political and Beijing will continue to be very pragmatic."