Comparing Egypt and China – wrong questions, meaningless answers.

[UPDATE 2/11: Evan Osnos of the New Yorker offers a very thoughtful reply to some of the points made in this post. Highly recommended.]

Election eve, many years ago, I was watching the evening news with a couple of friends when David Broder, the erstwhile columnist for the Washington Post, appeared on the television screen to talk about who would win California’s electoral votes. I’ll never forget the first words out of his mouth:

“I’ve been talking to the voters of California.”

All 36 million of them?” One of my friends asked, with a laugh, as Broder then proceeded to detail his earnest and, in my opinion, meaningless, conclusions.

Now, I realize that it is the job of the columnist and blogger to generalize – or over-generalize – based upon a small data set. But, as Broder’s ridiculous claim to have canvassed California’s voters suggests, this can be taken too far, and at risk of obscuring the important, more difficult questions that should be asked.

Exhibit #1: the growing wave of columns/blogs from China-experienced writers, asking: “Could Egypt’s/Tunisia’s unrest happen in China?” Now, I tend to think that’s the wrong question to be asking – and I’ll get to the right one in a moment – but first let’s take a look at the kind of high-level nonsense that’s being marshaled in blogs and columns to suggest that such an event is impossible in China. I quote these passages directly from recent blogs, all by writers whom I admire, a couple of whom are friends, and one even an occasional (and much favored) colleague (because that’s what friends are for):

Really, people? Really?

I’ve long argued that the phrase “average Chinese citizen” should be banned from the pages of any publication that wants to be viewed as a place where serious journalism takes place. But nevermind that – the problem with these kinds of answers/columns are that they require the reader to believe that the author’s social and work circle provides him/her with a reasonable sample of Chinese opinion to make such over-arching claims about Chinese society. But just as David Broder was never capable of personally accumulating enough interviews to claim that he’d been talking to “the voters of California,” I’ve yet to meet a China blogger/journo with enough friends to say something like “the average Chinese person is just too content to support an uprising at the moment.” There’s always a demographic counter-example, or, more damaging, a personal one. Like me: I happen to hang around with some fairly content Chinese people who – given the right circumstances – might just support an uprising. I certainly can’t rule it out. Whose “average Chinese citizen” is more representative?

So, then, what’s the right question to ask?

On Saturday, I was in an airport, when I struck up a conversation with someone I’ll characterize as an “average Chinese citizen.” We started talking about Egypt, and in the course of the conversation, he asked me – with a wry glint in his eye – “what are the chances that the US could experience an Egypt-style uprising?” Being a modern man, I promptly tweeted this question to my followers. My only response came from Virgina Postrel:

And what did you say about an Egypt-style uprising in the US? That we just had one & called it an election?

It’s an interesting point that I think is relevant, and overlooked, in any discussion about Egypt and China: uprisings are what happens when people don’t have any other means of venting their dissatisfaction and anger. Now, I’m quite aware that uprisings sometimes happen in countries where there are elections, and I’m also aware that non-democratic societies have their own, sometimes effective, venting mechanisms. But I’m not going to argue that point. Instead, I’m going to suggest that instead of journalists/columnists/bloggers opining on whether the “average Chinese citizen” has an appetite for chaos and revolution, 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. And I’m merely talking about the same kinds of grievances that might exist in a Democratic country: taxes, schools, roads, eminent domain. Feel free to take it further to, say, human rights. However you want to extend it, I think the answer – rigorously reported – might offer a more reasonable and empirical answer to whether or not China is at risk of an Egypt-style uprising.

It’s certainly a question that’s on the mind of China’s leaders, as suggested by Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent, well-publicized visit to the national petition bureau in Beijing which, as David Barboza of the New York Times put it, serves as “a lightning rod for anger about official corruption, illegal land seizures, labor disputes and complaints of all sort …” Barboza’s article aside, I know for honest to goodness fact that Wen’s visit produced quite a bit of on and off-record eye-rolling amongst China’s foreign correspondents. Perhaps, in light of recent events in Egypt, it’s worth a second look.

22 thoughts on “Comparing Egypt and China – wrong questions, meaningless answers.

  1. China Law Blog also chipped in. I agree, such blog articles are stupid, I’ll-informed and a waste of space.

  2. Clearly the Ministry of Propaganda is not entirely convinced that such an event couldn’t happen in China…

  3. My Chinese friends, artists who are clearly representive of all Chinese people think the situations are identical except that China has had it worse for longer, and that Egypt will be replicated in China sooner rather than later.

    I don’t think the situations are that similar, or that upheaval would be a good thing for China’s urban sophisticates. Says my Chinese middle class friend, “We’re allowed to make money just so the government can take it away.”

    The continued prosperity trickles down too slowly to make up for the property racket and the inflation and the corruption. There are a lot of things here that have to give: the question is how, and when. Personally, I’m a gradualist, and prefer the devil we know – a free press, right to protest, and local democracy is actually the best way for the CCP to stick around, and to circumvent any sort of chaotic transition.

  4. Any discussion on forbidden topics is worthwhile. And this topic seems to be at least semi-forbidden on websites easily accessible in China. Social unrest is widespread and continues to grow. Maybe most people don’t take part in uprisings yet. As anywhere, people are concerned with their family and their livelihood. Not with the government. Unless something bad enough happens, you don’t need to take action. Maybe you’ll discuss something, like Premier Wen visiting the Beijing Petition Bureau. They do seem to feel the need to address some problems publicly, and not only through suppression. Any comparison of China with countries in volatile situations is worthwhile. It’s important not to end up in the Nile, or in denial. That’s a nice little joke I just heard, very nice if you’re far away, I guess. To a very large extent, China is built on denial. The same could be said about other societies, like Austria. But maybe at least there is less denial now than 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. In Austria, maybe. It’s a dialectical process, maybe. There is still a lot of denial. But in China denial is at the base of the system. In private talk, if you’re a friend, people will tell you what they went through in the 1950s, -60s, -70s and so on, or what they are doing now, even if it’s against official policy. But is there enough public discussion of past and present grievances and problems? This is already very close to the question Adam has put in his post. Adam is right, saying that China is very special and very stable and so on often gets very obnoxious. I am very vary of any big-time supportive international collaboration with institutions in China. Just look at what happened at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2009. The organizers cooperated with China’s GAPP, the general administration of pressure and prodding to toe the government line in publishing. The Ministry of Truth. Maybe they had to, to stage a China-themed fair. And the ensuing scandal was good, except for a few officials. Any kind of discussion is good, any kind of publicity, if there is a lot of denial. I wonder if the Robert Bosch trust fund and other Western sources of funding for cooperation with China learned anything. In December there was a discussion in Germany and Austria, after an article in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung suggested that Chinese Studies institutions staid away from the topic of the Nobel Peace Prize award for a Chinese dissident. Maybe some of them do, if the people in charge are too closely affiliated with the Confucius Institutes situated right inside the Chinese Studies department, as it is usually the case now. In Vienna, this wasn’t a problem. There was a big discussion on January 11 at the Sinology department of the East Asian Institute, one of the most engaged and open events at Vienna University in a while, probably. Bei Ling, author of the Liu Xiaobo biography was there, reading and talking to an enthusiastic crowd, in a very interesting discussion about the roles of intellectuals and public institutions. Professor Weigelin was fully in her element. Prof. Findeisen and Dr. Wemheuer contributed important points on literature and society. Who would have thought that in January, people around the world would spontaneously think of 1989? At least for me it feels like back then, very sudden change sweeping through several countries. So of course there are many comparisons. It is nice to live in exciting times, and important not to end up in the Nile. May they have peace and better times in Egypt soon!

  5. How is this topic forbidden?
    It’s lead by dumb Americans who equate Egypt (an ancient nation largely founded by the Pharonic, sun-god worshippers, then colonized by the ancient Greeks & Romans, then by Britain & France) to become the moderate Islamist democracy it is today, how does that compare at all with China?
    US based blogs trying to demonstrate worldliness by discussing and comparing the two – it’s absurd.

  6. You are absolutely right. Nobody really knows what the average Chinese person thinks of democracy, nor do we know the same about the average Egyptian. What is interesting and should be discussed though is when revolutions occur. History says that when the economy is rising and opportunities to partake in the economy are also rising, revolutions typically do not occur. Conversely, when everyone is so poor they can barely eat, revolutions are also unlikely (see North Korea). Revolutions tend to occur when people have enough to eat yet are dissatisfied because they view their economic (and to a lesser extent, political) aspirations as having been unfairly stifled.

  7. You make interesting points, but let’s boil down the argument to its essence. Your premises are:

    1) Chinese people — like any people — have grievances about their government and social system.

    2) If people have grievances without sufficient institutions through to vent them — or rectify the problem — then they may take to the streets and disrupt society.

    3) Chinese people may not have sufficient institutions.

    ∴ Chinese people may take to collective action.

    Okay. As far as grievances and macro-structural variables go, your logic is sound. However, your missing a really important piece that social movement researchers have been examining for some time: the necessity of organization.

    I won’t go on at length here. But without organizing mechanisms — groups and communication within/between — social movements don’t occur. And in China, the biggest political red line is to create social groups for this reason. (It doesn’t have to be a “political” group. The civil rights movement was led by a pastor and networks of churches.)

    In Egypt, this organizational structure has been there for two decades. There were waves of protests, via these organizations, in the 1990s and 2000s. Empirically, Egypt is a different environment. And theoretically, this makes Egypt and China hard to compare, other than via the “grievances” variable. And any social movement theorist will tell you that grievances are a constant everywhere all the time!

  8. Kevin – Thank you, but that’s not my argument. My argument is that many bloggers/columnists/journalists are asking the wrong questions, providing answers that are too general and without factual basis, and not taking a hard look at whether China has social/political institutions through which they can vent their frustrations sufficiently.

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  10. “I’ve long argued that the phrase “average Chinese citizen” should be banned from the pages of any publication that wants to be viewed as a place where serious journalism takes place.”

    To conclude that the concept of the “average Chinese citizen” lacks value, you would have to first be certain that a) the “average Chinese citizen” does not exist; and/or or b) no one has enough information to say anything relevant about the “average Chinese citizen.”

    Besides the blanket warning about overgeneralizing contained in your admonishment, I think it’s pretty clear that you’re wrong. It seems to me that the “average ___ citizen” exists in many nations, to the extent that the term is used to introduce the existence of a common experience or – in this case – a majority belief. (E.g., “The average American is Christian.” http://religions.pewforum.org/reports.) As for the question of pinpointing a characteristic of the “average Chinese citizen,” common experiences seem relatively easy to pin down – say, for example, the poverty and uncertainty of the Great Leap Forward. Common beliefs are of course trickier, but I see value in both public opinion work and straw polls or impressions.

    Setting aside for the moment public opinion polls (reliability of methodology will of course vary by study), let’s talk about straw polls and impressions. You have to remember that the “old China hands” have traveled extensively throughout the country and likely discussed a whole range of issues while doing so, both in their role as reporters and apart from it. While their “circle of friends” may be, for example, mostly made up of university students or media professionals, their conclusions are not drawn from those groups alone.

  11. I’m curious why your “average Chinese citizen” thought Americans were anywhere near Egyptian levels of discontent, oppression, or whatever he thought would result in such an uprising here. I know people complain a lot, but trying to overthrow the government by force???

  12. Pingback: Egypt, China, and 1989 « Sinologistical Violoncellist

  13. Ethan – You just proved your point. The US is a Christian nation, yes, but if you think that can serve as a generalization about the US, then you don’t have much understanding of the US, or Christianity. For we must then ask, what kind of average Christian American: Catholics, Pentecostal, Luterhan, Baptist, etc etc. The theological differences are immense, the geographic distribution is wide, and the outlooks are dissimilar as black and white. Please try again.

  14. Don’t you think that the venting channels have improved since 1989, in spite of the hide and seek game between netizens and ministry of harmony? Also, beyond the trigger factor, isn’t the 1989 demonstration that the army won’t stay neutral, going to hold people back?

  15. I greatly enjoy reading foreigners, and especially academics and journalists, defending their right to generalize about 1.3 billion Chinese. Ethan’s comment, however, deserves special attention, if only because he apparently believes that the Great Leap Forward constitutes a collective experience for Chinese people … in 2011. Earth to Ethan: most living Chinese people weren’t alive during the Great Leap Forward.

  16. I know it’s not the point of this post, although some commenters have taken it to be, but… Here’s a nice article that breaks down the Egypt situation into a much more complex picture; once you dig into the details it becomes much more obvious that simplified “average Chinese person” comparisons are naive and deeply flawed.

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  18. A few comments, in order of appearance:
    1. Hayek: Proving my point was my intent. And unless you are willing to go ahead and make the claim that my example about the majority of U.S. citizens being Christian tells you /nothing meaningful/ about the U.S., then that point holds against your argument. If you /are/ willing to make that claim, then we have some fundamental disagreements about what constitutes meaning and it won’t be productive to hash that out here. A final point: Did someone tell you it’s productive to end expressions of disagreement with cute phrases like “please try again”?

    2. Chris: Channels for venting grievances are definitely important and oft-overlooked. Protests and publicized scandals don’t do much for the promotion prospects of small-time party cadres, so they have a certain incentive to be responsive to the requests and requirements of the people; and although that doesn’t address any of the issues at the top, we need to keep in mind the old adage that “all politics is local” and recall that the biggest concerns of the average Chinese person (see what I just did there?) are pragmatic in nature.

    3. Barry: Your comment implies that whereas foreigners have no right to “generalize about 1.3 billion Chinese,” the Chinese people do. That’s an assumption you should look into. As for your main argument: my comment about pinpointing common experiences and attitudes was in no way meant to be limited to the contemporary, and I’m very willing to admit that this sort of generalization is easier to make when looking at a phenomenon from a historical perspective, as in my Great Leap example. The wording of that example seemed fairly clear to me, but I’m sorry if it caused confusion. (I saw “Earth to Ethan” and it came out as “I’m looking for a fight,” but I’m going to go ahead and assume the misunderstanding wasn’t intentional.)

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