The scent of jasmine

The tumultuous events in Egypt this week, still unfolding as I write, have been commented upon by experts far more knowledgeable than I am about the Arab world. And yet there is one aspect of what has happened that none of the experts seem to have focused on — something with wider global implications.
Let me explain. Perhaps one of the more interesting sidelights of last weekend’s dramatic events in Cairo, as millions poured into Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square and the Egyptian police melted away in the face of demonstrators, looters, democrats and vandals alike, was the reaction of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing’s official spokesperson on January 30 called for a “return to order” in Egypt, expressing concern at the troubles besieging this “friendly country”. Praying for calm, the Chinese government made it clear that the restoration of law and order was its principal priority.
What made China — once a reliable supporter of the cause of “liberation” for “oppressed peoples” seen as groaning under the yoke of pro-Western authoritarian regimes — take such a tack this time? It is easy enough to say that China is no longer the Communist country it used to be, and that Mao’s old enthusiasm for spreading the faith of the Little Red Book has long been supplanted by a preference for the Big Green Chequebook instead. That is, of course, true, and few are the “liberation movements” these days that can count on cash, ideological support or practical assistance from Beijing. Nor is it wrong to point out that despite a consciousness of a US threat to its own global superpower ambitions, China does not fundamentally see itself in political competition with the US and is making little effort to wrest pro-Washington governments away from the American embrace.
All that is commonplace enough. But there is something more behind the Chinese position. What China’s statement about Egypt reveals is that the mandarins in Beijing are thinking about themselves — and their own stake in the success across the world of authoritarian systems which, whatever their foreign policy orientations, are more akin to their style of rule than to Washington’s.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990-91, no one was more worried than the Beijing establishment. They too had embarked on reforms, after all, driven by the same realisation as Moscow that the Communist system was not only morally and ideologically bankrupt, but worse still, did not work in practice. Communism’s biggest weakness was not that it was undemocratic, but that it could not deliver the goods. The fact that the USSR’s embrace of reform had led so rapidly to the collapse of the ruling Communist Party, and even to unravelling of the entire country, gave pause to the enthusiasts of change in China — those who had been tempted by the Gorbachev-like impulses of one-time party leader Zhao Ziyang. They anxiously studied the Soviet reform experience for lessons they could draw upon to avoid a similar fate themselves.
And from this emerged a simple insight: what an authoritarian system in the throes of reform needs to do is to pursue perestroika but not glasnost. Political change is a bad idea, economic success is essential.
Gorbachev’s big mistake, the bosses in Beijing concluded, was that he mixed up the genuine need for perestroika (the restructuring of the failed and inefficient Communist economic and bureaucratic system) with the unnecessary turn towards glasnost (openness, liberalism and democratic pluralism in the political system). The former, as the Chinese Communists saw it, was an imperative they had already realised by then; the latter, which Gorbachev saw as a necessary accompaniment — rather like the chole without which a batura isn’t worth having, would simply guarantee their own extinction. Whereas the Russian Communists had wrongly believed the package came as a whole and couldn’t be disaggregated, the Chinese decided it could be. They proceeded to demonstrate that you could operate a capitalist economic model within an authoritarian, repressive one-party state.
In this they found considerable sympathy from regimes around the world which, while pro-Western in their foreign policy, remained the antithesis of Western Enlightenment values at home. The survival of such regimes — from Putin’s Russia, still more messy than Beijing would like, to a variety of Arab and African dictatorships — vindicated China’s view that its way of doing business (and running government) had far more resonance and viability than the free-for-all democracy practised in untidy places like India and nominally advocated by America and the European Union.
The fact is that they are not wholly wrong. The “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia and its knock-on effect in Egypt (with the prospect of the contagion spreading to Libya, Sudan, Yemen and/or Jordan in the weeks and months to come) is instructive for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps the most striking of them is that it is not authoritarianism per se that the crowds in the streets are demonstrating against. Dictatorial rule has been accepted in each of these countries for decades. What the protestors were shouting for was not just freedom but dignity — the dignity that comes from having jobs worth doing, food to eat, hopes of a better life for the kids. As long as authoritarianism can deliver economic benefits, most people in most developing countries will put aside their natural desire for democratic self-expression and concentrate on making a good life for themselves and their families instead. It is when an authoritarian state fails to deliver on these basic necessities that the people finally pour into the streets.
This is the central Chinese insight. A rock song of the 1970s memorably told us that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. When the heavy hand of the state takes care of your material aspirations, its heaviness seems less important. Opposing it would jeopardise a lot of material benefits: this is why Chinese dissidents have so little support in their materialistic society. When the state doesn’t deliver the goods, then opposing it makes sense: you have nothing left to lose. The biggest failures of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine Al Abidin Ben Ali in Tunisia may not have been their repressive politics but their failed economics. If young men hadn’t been unemployed and struggling to make ends meet, feed themselves and have the self-respect to offer a home to the young women they desired, they would not be calling for the overthrow of their government. That is worth bearing in mind as the so-called experts allow the scent of jasmine to envelop us all.

n Shashi Tharoor
is a member of Parliament from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram constituency

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