China and the World

No Nile fever

How Chinese media covered events in Cairo

Both dislike crowds

Amid the chaos in Cairo’s Tahrir Square this month, keen-eyed observers may have spotted a couple of more unusual requests for Mubarak’s resignation – signage written in Chinese.

Evidence of the demonstrators’ media savvy, perhaps? If so, it was ambitious to hope that the placards would make it to Chinese TV, where coverage of the Egyptian unrest has been carefully handled. Any footage of revolt in the main square of a capital city is always going to be treated with caution in Beijing, by a government reluctant to spotlight revolutionary scenes (with the exception of its own 1949 successes, naturally).

So, suggesting that Egypt’s experience is going to have an impact in China itself would be fanciful. Cross-border contagion looks like being much more of a factor in the Middle East. Still, the Chinese leadership hasn’t taken any chances. Editors were reminded that only official Xinhua news agency reports were suitable for release, and most of these concentrated on the emergency flights arranged to carry home stranded citizens. “Thank the motherland!” was one widely reported comment from a returnee arriving at Beijing airport.

Efforts have also been made to block online material that mentions the unrest. But weibo discussion (see page 14) of the events in the Middle East has proved impossible to stifle completely, with many netizens working out how to navigate around blocked words by replacing them with similar sounding characters.

The state media has focused more on images of the disorder in Cairo, with the implicit threat of the dangers that accompany regime change. “Malfunction is Good for No One” warned one People’s Daily headline early in the crisis. The Global Times also predicted that a chaotic Egypt could be like “a second Iran” with the world facing “disaster”. One to remember when sanctions against Tehran next come up for discussion at the UN…

Readers have also been reminded that democracy Western-style probably shouldn’t top the agenda in Africa and the Middle East. Even the Americans were being cautious in calling for it, the Global Times noted, as “they are not sure if there is a beauty or demon behind that door”.

A number of bloggers made a comparable point; that Mubarak’s regime may not have lasted quite so long without the support of democratic governments in the West.

What will the Chinese leadership have learned from events in the Middle East? To remain deeply suspicious of Western internet companies calling for fuller access to a Chinese audience, for one thing. It will also have been noted that Wael Ghonim, one of the most prominent figures in the anti-Mubarak efforts, is a senior Google executive. Plus that he told CNN last week that the Egyptian revolution had “started” on Facebook.

But perhaps the key lesson as far as the Chinese leadership is concerned: the role of high unemployment in the Egyptian unrest (the economy not growing quickly enough to generate jobs for the young), as well as the inflammatory contribution of inflation (running at more than 10% for the last two years).

“High prices, high unemployment, official corruption and autocracy for 30 years,” was one assessment from “North Wind”, an internet user posting on Baidu. “All this makes it easy for the Chinese to think of their own situation.”

In comparison to Mubarak’s government, of course, China has a reputation for delivering much more robust economic growth. GDP is growing at almost twice Egypt’s rate (5.1% last year), with per capita levels of income about a fifth higher in purchasing parity terms, according to the IMF. But both countries must also meet the rising expectations that growth brings, meaning that Beijing has to keep its foot on the gas in GDP terms. If not, discontent could bubble up to the surface, warns Yuan Weishi, a historian at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

“The Chinese public now have strong awareness of their rights and they can never return to the old days when they were subject to manipulation and had no rights to voice their criticism,” Yuan told the South China Morning Post.


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