For the last three weeks, we witnessed something extraorgdinary in the Egypt. A unpopular leader is finally brought down by revolts in the street. A gallant people finally brought a hated tyrrant down to his knees.
Yet, if one really think about it, even by the most optimistic of figures, at most (perhaps) one million people at one time or another added together protested against Mubarak over the last three weeks. Egypt is a land of 80 million. That means the vast majority of the people never took to the street over the last three weeks.
I had an interesting chat with a friend from Egypt a couple of nights ago. We were friends from graduate school. He told me that while most people he knew did not think highly of Mubarak – who is deemed by most to be unsympathetic to the people, tolerant of corruption, and incapable of bringing prosperity to Egypt – most also did indeed fear instability and violence.
A L.A. Times article had this to say of the Chinese reaction about Egypt:
Wary of the parallels between Tahrir and Tiananmen, Beijing is hardly celebrating the popular uprising in Egypt that brought down an authoritarian regime.
The Chinese government offered a sobering assessment Saturday of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement that China hoped “the latest developments help restore national stability and social order at an early date.”
News coverage of the 18-day uprising has emphasized looting, rioting and violence, while downplaying the jubilation of the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. A short editorial Saturday in the state-run English-language China Daily used the word “stability,” a favorite of the Chinese Communist Party, seven times. It warned that “any political changes will be meaningless if the country falls prey to chaos in the end.”
In a bold retort to the party’s rhetoric about stability, the influential new business magazine Caixin editorialized on its Web page Saturday: “It is autocracy that creates chaos, while democracy breeds peace. Supporting an autocracy is in reality trading short-term interests for long-term costs.”
From the beginning of the protests in Egypt last month, the Chinese propaganda machine sought to limit and direct coverage. Although the story was too big to expunge, news media were directed to run reports only from the state-run New China News Agency. On some social networking sites, searches for the word “Egypt” were blocked.
Why such shrill about the Chinese response?
The Chinese gov’t reaction has been anything but wary. For anyone with Internet access and who cares to roam the Chinese media social media outlets, one would have found tremendous interests and discussions on Egypt. While a few sites did restrict certain key words, as Charles demonstrated, the censors were anything but the systemic mass censor depicted in the Western press. In any case, even if there were some self “censors” by various private sites, the effects were nothing comparable to the widespread restrictions on Wikileaks by the likes of Amazon, Mastercard, EveryDNS.net, and Paypal a few months ago.
A focus on security and stability per se is not propagandistic. My Egyptian friend retorted: while he was not a Mubarak supporter, he did not see the point of forcing him to resign at the moment when he had promised to not run this coming Fall. “So we traded martial law for Mubarak, military rule for political normacy.” What did we gain beyond an election that was going to happen anyways?
L.A. Times continued:
As in Egypt, China’s leadership in 1989 was challenged by a nationwide, popular uprising.
Although those protests were famously quashed by the tanks that rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government has reason to watch events in Egypt with trepidation. China, like Egypt, is plagued by high inflation and unemployment rates among recent university graduates.
“Our economy is doing much better than Egypt’s, but the political systems have some striking similarities,” said Minxin Pei, a Chinese-born political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.
“Both regimes have narrow bases of support in their society, which means the system is fundamentally fragile.… And there’s been this obsession with stability, which prevents governments from taking the necessary reforms to open up the political system.”
Perhaps L.A. Times need to conduct better fact check.
The 1989 protests were limited and never caught on to become a broad-based (i.e. involving various groups with different political demands) movement with national reach as the Egyptian protests did. As for the Chinese gov’t today, the Chinese government enjoys broad base of support. Unlike Mubarak’s government – who focused on building good relations with the West but did little else for its people – the Chinese government is consistently ranked most popular among the world: it is more popular to its own people than most democratic governments are today to their own.
The purpose of this post is not necessary to denegrate the West’s narrow narrative on Egypt, but to note that the stability narrative carried on Chinese media is a legitimate narrative that has tremendous pull – including with most Egyptians today.
Whether the protests of the last few weeks is a people’s moment remains to be seen. For the opposition to become a true people’s movement that empower the Egyptian people, many things have to happen besides ousting of Mubarak or the holding of “fair” elections this fall.
The government will have to be more responsive to the needs of the common people: less corruption, more economic development, more political independence on the international stage…
There are many obstacles to this moment ushering in an era of true self determination for the Egyptian people, but in the shadow of this “special moment in history,” we – together with the people of Egypt – should stand together and hold out hope.