The democratic uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have fueled speculation about whether China could be the next seat of popular unrest. On Monday, the debate resurfaced when Premier Wen Jiabao--who in recent weeks has promised to root out government corruption, curb inflation, and narrow income inequality--called for gradual, Communist Party-led political and economic "restructuring."
But Wen, like other Chinese officials, rejected any comparisons between China and countries in North Africa and the Middle East, arguing that the Chinese government has responded to social concerns and improved the lines of Chinese people through its market-based economic policies. What should we believe? Analysts suggest that there are at least three different lenses through which one can view Wen's comments:
RESPONSE TO MIDDLE EAST
There have been signs that events in the Arab world are reverberating in China and spooking Chinese officials. The government, for example, dispatched police to major cities, detained activists, and tightened the screws on the media and the web when an anonymous Internet campaign called for Tunisian-style rallies in the country. The Wall Street Journal's Jeremy Page notes that the two issues Wen most wants to address--inflation and corruption--are also central to the uprisings in the Arab world.
INTERNAL ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL PRESSURES
Yet Wen's desire to reduce inflation and income inequality could just as well be a response to the fact that China has struggled to spread the wealth spawned by its rapid economic growth evenly--a matter that's become more of a concern because of internal economic realities.
Over the last few months, China has worked hard to combat rising food and housing prices, which Wen on Monday blamed on stimulus spending in countries like the U.S. and high oil prices stemming from the unrest in the Arab world. As AFP puts it, the state is confronting the challenge of "keeping growth in the world's second-largest economy fast enough to create jobs, but moderate enough to prevent inflation worsening." Inflation, AFP says, has a "history of sparking unrest in China, with its hundreds of millions of poor farmers and low-paid workers scraping to get by."
INTERNAL DISAGREEMENT ABOUT COMMUNIST PARTY'S DIRECTION
The Washington Post notes that Wen, in calling for more political openness, has long clashed with Communist Party hard-liners who reject Western-style democracy, with its separation of powers and multiparty elections. One of these hard-liners--the head of the National People’s Congress, Wu Bangguo--declared that China must not “waver” from its socialist system in a speech last week.
But just how radical are Wen's views? The Journal's Page notes that when Wen talks about political reform, he's "referring only to limited in-Party political reform which has the support of most of his peers, and is designed to strengthen the Party's grip on power, rather than weaken it." China's leaders, Page says, are trying to "make the Party more transparent, accountable and responsive to social problems, particularly by trying to harness the power of the Internet."