Egypt Crisis Offers Lessons for Asia

Leaders in China, North Korea, and Burma need to ease suppression of basic rights.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
china-tiananmen-asia-305.jpg Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators surround a truck filled with military personnel on May 20, 1989 in Beijing before the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in June that year.

The fiery street revolt in Egypt has sent a chill down the spines of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes in Asia and raises valid questions over the long-held notion that sustained economic growth and higher living standards can compensate for restrictions on freedom, experts say. 

It's not that the mass angry protests crying for the head of President Hosni Mubarak at Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square will reverberate overnight in China's Tiananmen Square, where a popular, peaceful uprising was brutally suppressed 22 years ago.

But leaders in countries such as China, North Korea, and Burma have to understand that suppression of basic rights has to be eased to contain an avalanche of political change, according to the experts.

These leaders do not have to look afar to the Middle East to take the cue.

In their own neighborhood, Indonesians in 1998 took to the streets to bring down dictator Suharto, whose 32-year reign saw blatant corruption, nepotism, and human rights abuses.

More than a decade after Suharto's departure, Indonesia has emerged as the world's most populous Muslim democracy and arguably Southeast Asia's most functional democracy.

Similarly, Asia's authoritarian states can look back to the 1986 People Power revolt in the Philippines, where millions stormed the streets and forced dictator Ferdinand Marcos into exile in the United States.


US-based Freedom House rating of the level of freedom in Asia.

While most experts believe that the revolt in Egypt serves as a lesson for Asian leaders and governments refusing to submit to the cries for greater freedom and accountability by the people, some believe that the benefits of economic growth and higher living standards can act as a critical cushion.

The "lessons" for Asia at this point are not so clear, although the revolt in Egypt and the Jan. 14 toppling of Tunisia's authoritarian president, which sparked a wave of protests across the Arab world, should serve as a warning sign for Asian regimes, said Asia Society’s Executive Vice President Jamie Metzl.

“It may well be the case that dictatorial regimes that completely cut off and ruthlessly suppress their people, like in North Korea and Burma, and autocratic regimes that actually drive somewhat distributed economic growth, as in China and Singapore, are more protected than nondemocratic regimes that get caught in the middle between these two extremes," he said.

"If this is the case, leaders across the Middle East and in countries in places as far afield as Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia should be worried,” said Metzl whose New York-based group strives to strengthen ties among the people, leaders, and institutions of the United States and Asia.

The crisis in Egypt exploded from simmering resentment over rampant poverty, entrenched corruption, rising prices, high unemployment, and lack of opportunities for quality education and advancement among the country's younger generation.


So, is rapidly growing China off the hook even as it tightens its grip on the media and steps up the imprisonment of dissidents?

Not exactly.

“To be sure, authoritarian rule can manage the early stages of industrialization. But a ‘knowledge economy’ cannot operate with muzzled minds,” said Pierre Buhler, a former French diplomat who served in Singapore, among other countries.

“Even the smartest authoritarian rulers are unable to manage complexity on this scale—not to mention the corruption that inevitably breeds in the protected shadows of autocracy,” he said.

He said that the Tunisian people, led by a frustrated middle class that refused to be cowed, provide a healthy reminder of the steady and compelling forces driving the behavior of individuals and nations nowadays.

“They illustrate the catalytic effect of digital connectivity—clearly visible, too, among China’s ‘twittering classes.’"

Social tension

Chan Hui, portfolio manager at Qwest Investment Fund Management Ltd., pointed out that the spark for the Tunisian riots was provided by an incident where a young university graduate, forced to sell vegetables on the street, set himself on fire in protest.

Part of China's latest five-year plan sought a shift away from investment to domestic consumption and an upgrade of the Chinese workforce through education, "but unemployment among the educated is rising and creating social tension," he said.

"Already the discontent is showing itself," he said referring to a recent viral video about oppressed rabbits rising against brutal tiger overlords, an apparent swipe at China's communist rulers, ahead of the Year of the Rabbit.

In addition, Chinese netizens have posted angry comments about the Egyptian government's move to unplug the Internet, defying a censorship ban on the keywords "Egypt" and "Cairo" on popular microblogging services.

The Chinese Communist Party trumpets its growth record as its mandate to govern, but its ability to co-opt and neutralize emerging interest groups is the real key to its supposedly "resilient" authoritarianism, said the Wall Street Journal in an opinion piece.

"This grows ever more difficult."

“The level of dissatisfaction with authoritarian regimes ebbs and flows, but as China also demonstrated in the late 1980s, people will demonstrate en masse when they see their standard of living being eroded by high inflation.”

Growth in China is slowing, the economy is still reliant on export industries that employ low-skilled workers, unemployment among college graduates has reappeared as a significant problem, and a renewed emphasis on promoting large state-owned companies has benefited the Communist Party elite while stifling entrepreneurial opportunities.

Cause for concern

The situation in tightly controlled Vietnam, military-ruled Burma, and even reclusive North Korea, where voices of the opposition are seldom or ever heard, also gives cause for concern.

In impoverished North Korea, a growing number of people hold the government of dictator Kim Jong Il in low regard and are far more skeptical of official explanations of their misery than is generally supposed, according to a new study released this week.

Experts who conducted the study based on a survey of refugees fleeing the repressive and nuclear-armed state into South Korea and China also found that North Korea "faces tensions that result from rising inequality, corruption, and its citizens' desperate quest for higher social status and income."

Despite North Korea's identity as an authoritarian state with economic activity supposedly controlled by the government, private business and corrupt and illegal activities are emerging as the dominant ways of getting ahead throughout the country, according to the survey by experts at the U.S.-based Institute for International Economics.

"I think of the North Korean state as a surfer. They're trying to maintain their balance on top of this dynamic, shifting foundation," said Marcus Noland, who was among those who conducted the study.


In Burma, military rulers who brutally suppressed a 2008 revolution led by monks resulting from rocketing fuel prices are reluctant to have a debate on policies, even though a new parliament convened for the first time this week after much criticized elections.

"Only articulate people can conduct debate in parliament," said ex-general and culture minister Khin Aung Myint, fresh from being elected as chairman of the upper House of Nationalities in parliament.

"It is a waste of time, and so we do not allow debate in parliament in the interest of efficiency," he said.

Despite the despair, dissidents remain hopeful.

“It's necessary to keep cool heads and strong hearts and not ever to lose hope and to keep on going,” said Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in a message to anti-regime protesters in Egypt.


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