Unrest reaches China

While attention has been focused on the unrest in the Arab world and, there have been rumblings of discontent in China. So far, protests have been small, and the authorities have snuffed them out before they can gather pace. Simon Wilson reports on what's been happening and asks whether China is vulnerable to a Middle East-style popular uprising.

China's rulers have stamped down hard on the first signs of a Middle East-style uprising. Simon Wilson reports.

What's been happening?

While international attention has been focused on the Arab world and, to a lesser extent, on the clampdown on opposition groups in Iran, the rumblings of protest in China have received scant coverage. In part, that's because so far the protests have been notably lacklustre. On successive Sundays, the calls (on the US-hosted Boxun website) for "strolling protests" at specific well-known places in Beijing, Shanghai, and dozens of other Chinese cities have resulted in a bigger turnout from the state security forces and foreign journalists than from would-be protestors. But the immediate and concerted response from the authorities shows just how determined they are to snuff out any protests before it can gather pace.

What have they done?

Clamped down hard. In Beijing, the designated spot where protestors were asked to gather was outside a branch of McDonald's on Wangfujing, a major pedestrianised shopping street. Even though the Boxun site is unavailable in China, the police and the army were well prepared, turning out in force two weekends ago (on 27 February) to stop anyone from even slowing down at the designated spot. To make extra sure that no protestors could gather there, the restaurant was closed, the immediate area blocked off with fake building hoardings, and street-cleaning trucks deployed to douse the surrounding area with water, sending passers by scrambling.

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What about journalists?

The authorities appear to have launched a twin-track campaign of physical intimidation plus the reintroduction of a ban on interviewing ordinary people, which was lifted for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Several foreign journalists have been assaulted by plain-clothes police and bundled into vans while attempting to cover the events in Beijing and Shanghai. Others have been harassed at their homes, had equipment confiscated, or been detained for hours to prevent them reporting on the protests. China's foreign minister flatly denied this week that any such intimidation of a kind Beijing routinely uses to stifle its own citizens to suppress dissent was now being used on foreign reporters. But the reports are supported by multiple witness accounts and video evidence.

If the protests are tiny, why are the authorities so worried?

Because, as Mao famously put it, "a single spark can start a prairie fire". The Middle East has just proved as much. The security forces' tactic of harsh pre-emptive action was explained this week with startling frankness in The Global Times, an English language newspaper run by the Chinese Communist Party. "If the illegal gatherings get out of control," read an editorial, "the political unrest would undermine the eventual social benefits [of permitting protests]. Unrest is still imprinted deeply into Chinese society. Revolution catalysed a new China, but society also paid heavy costs for the revolution." In other words: what's needed is stability at all costs.

What else is Beijing doing?

At this week's session of the National Party Congress, China's premier, Wen Jiabao, spelt out the government's plan for the next five years, repeatedly emphasising policies that are aimed at reducing tensions. These included higher social spending, a renewed focus on controlling inflation, and measures (steady rises in the minimum wage; restrictions on executive pay; new taxes on high-end property) aimed at reducing the gap between rich and poor. All of this it is hoped will be underpinned by a new five-year economic plan that will transform the economy so that it becomes more driven by consumption and much less dependent on the kind of debt-heavy growth that fuels asset bubbles, especially in property. Will all this work? The party had better hope so. After all, as another Chinese political saying has it, "The water can float the boat, but can also sink it."


1. China's economy is firing on all cylinders: growth and employment rates are high. Why revolt if things are improving?

2. China has a collective leadership system with well-established succession planning, and the regime is constantly analysing threats to its power. It is not an autocracy led by an ageing,

out-of-touch dictator. So it's very different to the Middle East.

3. Beijing is well aware of discontent over prices and is adapting policy accordingly. Just in case, the annual budget for domestic security is $94bn, more than China spends on its military.


1. Revolutions have often occurred when a long period of rising expectations ends in a sudden economic reverse a plausible scenario in China, especially if price inflation takes hold.

2. Political repression will ultimately backfire, no matter how well the economy is performing, and no matter what supposed 'cultural' factors favour 'stability' and strong government.

3. China's glut of single young men will lead to instability, especially given systemic corruption, widespread poverty, and growing inequality similar factors triggered the Arab uprisings.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.