Is the 'China Model' Failing?

The country's economic growth, long thought to ensure Communist Party rule, has done little to curb the protests and violence that have erupted across the country in recent weeks


Chinese military police march in Xintiang / Reuters

China's great compromise, an implicit deal in which the government promises steady rule and consistent economic growth in exchange for total control overĀ  the world's largest autocracy, may be losing its appeal. In several of China's provinces, protests are spiraling into a cycle of self-perpetuating violence: civil demonstrations are almost immediately met with overwhelming force from riot police, sparking a more violent backlash from protesters, inspiring an even tougher crackdown, and so on. It's difficult to see either side backing down. When it comes to internal dissent, China's government has long chosen suppression over compromise categorically. The protesters will be unable to achieve their goals of freedom from repression while security forces are treating them so brutally, and that brutal treatment will only raise the protesters' desire to break free.

China's unspoken promise to its citizens -- stay in line, and we'll maintain economic growth -- has long convinced many people in and outside of China that it would guarantee regime stability. The Chinese people will be happy (or at least not so unhappy as to rise up), the reasoning goes, so long as the economy is strong. Watching China's economy buoy as our own sank, some U.S. columnists have even expressed envy for the Chinese model, though such opinions represent only a minority. The mainstream U.S. view seems to be this: China's model might not be very moral or ethical, but it works, and the country's rise will inevitably continue, with an autocratic but wealthy China playing a large (and possibly dominant) role on the world stage.

The Democracy ReportThis may very well be the world's future, with China, and perhaps other state-run societies, becoming an undeniably definitive feature of the global system. But few of the theories predicting the Chinese model's successful endurance anticipated the protests currently racking China's outer provinces -- and even some inner provinces. It began long before the Arab Spring; in the large, Northwestern province of Xinjiang, where the mostly Muslim, ethnic Uighur population rose up against a government that had long oppressed it. The protests were violently suppressed, but have rekindled several times, including recently.

More recently, protests have marked the semi-autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. Like Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia is remote; few photos or videos of the violence made their way into the rest of the world, and the two regions' grievances have attracted little discussion in either the West or in the major coastal cities that dominate Chinese society. They are remote, consist of ethnic minorities rather than ethnic Han, economically unimportant, and socially disconnected from the rest of the country. China, and the world, had every reason to ignore the protests. Until they spread.

Last week, riots broke out in Guangdong province, the country's most populous as well as its industrial base. Coastal, ethnic Han, and economically essential, Guangdong province matters for China. In the violence end ensuing crackdown, protesters burned out cars, ransacked shops, and rained bricks on police. CNN's Eunice Yoon, arriving here not long after the protesters, wrote, "for the first time since I started reporting in China years ago, workers approached us unfazed by our cameras. They were unafraid to vent their grievances to foreign TV journalists even as the police looked on." Police soon commanded her to leave.

According to the theory of the Chinese model, this dissent should have been prompted by economic matters, such as stagnating growth or lack of employment opportunities. But a report from Guangdong by McClatchy newspapers' Tom Lassetter found grievances based not on money but on justice, on political participation, and on the arbitrary rule inherent to a police society.

Public discussion about the causes of the violence in Zengcheng [a city in Guangdong province] has followed a familiar line: low wages and bad working conditions for migrant laborers -- who make up more than half of Zengcheng's 818,000 residents -- possibly whipped up by criminal gangs.

But interviews here show that the chaos was stoked by anger that had been building for years at the bullying tactics of both the "chengguan," meter maid-like guards who're charged with enforcing municipal ordinances, and the "public security teams," ad hoc officers cobbled together by neighborhood or village committees.

The trigger for last weekend's rioting was the news that a pregnant migrant had been pushed to the ground -- initial rumors said killed -- during an altercation with security. It was a report with which migrants could easily identify.

Whether or not that rumor is true, it clearly resonated with Chinese in Guangdong. And it should sound familiar -- it is remarkably similar to the story of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who, after abuse at the hands of his country's notoriously abusive police, set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, almost immediately sparking the Arab uprisings that are currently overturning some of the region's most entrenched regimes. As in Tunisia, people in Guangdong are clearly fed up with repression (Tunisia's rapid economic growth also gave it a reputation for impregnable stability). And they're not alone.

In late May in Jiangxi province, a businessman whose house had been leveled by the government to make room for new development (a common practice in the country), but who had never received his long-promised compensation, set off three car bombs next to government buildings. Last week in Hubei province, protesters and paramilitary police clashed after a local official, popular for his reputation of fighting government corruption, was detained and possibly tortured to death by police. In Tianjin, one of China's officially designated "National Central Cities" and a hub of the prosperity and development supposedly at the heart of the country's stability, at least one bomb went off outside government offices.

The protests, and violent government reactions they have provoked, reveal a less-discussed aspect of the Chinese model: the threat of force. Much has changed in China's violent, tumultuous 1970s and '80s. The country has indeed seen incredible growth, gradual liberalization that has surprised many analysts for its apparent sincerity, and greater stability in a society that only two generations ago was in turmoil.

But China is still a military dictatorship. It is still the China of June 4, 1989, when the military killed an unknown number of peaceful demonstrators gathered at Tiananmen Square. Since that day, the dynamics in China have changed, but the underlying system has not. As it has demonstrated in its reaction to this recent spate of protests, the Chinese model is still based, more than anything else, on the threat of overwhelming force by the government against the people.

Such is the nature of autocracy, even the most benign. The China model may have shown some success at curbing dissent, but the underlying causes of that dissent -- arbitrary rule, lack of political participation, coercion -- remain, for the simple reason that they are inherent to any society where a small group rules over a large group by the use of force. Those grievances can be temporarily mollified by economic growth, but money can never solve them. And though China's unrest appears unlinked to the uprisings in the Arab world, they are both enabled by similar factors: the rise of social media as a tool to organize and to broadcast images of government abuse, the influx of liberal democratic ideas, and a worldwide opening that shows Chinese and Arab subjects alike that life doesn't have to be this way.

This conflict and unrest are inherent to the Chinese model. The regime in Beijing, like every ruling party in every autocracy throughout history and around the world, can deploy violence to address the symptoms, but not the cause: themselves.