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Turmoil in the Middle East and Prospects for the Chinese Communist Party

Public Security Bureau car at Tiananmen Square; photo by author, 2008

In recent weeks, many in the West, and even some in China, have speculated about the resilience of China’s authoritarianism. Could what happened in Egypt happen in China? (For some U.S. perspectives, see a Forbes.com article by Gordon Chang from January 30th and a Wall Street Journal article by Loretta Chao from a couple weeks ago.) China is clearly playing it safe as it reacts with force to even the smallest hints of protest this week.

The Tiananmen Square massacre remains the template for authoritarian responses to popular pro-democracy movements. “The unity of China is more important than those people in Tiananmen Square,” Muammar Qaddafi said last Tuesday. (In fact, Qaddafi was attempting to justify actions so appalling that even China has voted in favor of a unanimous UN Security Council resolution that said those attacks against civilians “may amount to crimes against humanity.”)

So, what would it take for another revolution in China? And what would China’s communist party (the CCP) be willing or able to do to stay in power?

Here are some things to think about.

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Landless Peasants and Social Stability

Petitioners Line up in Beijing (Daniel Michaeli, 11/2008)

John Garnaut of the Sydney Morning Herald says rural land disputes could lead to “revolutionary turmoil” in China, citing Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This is a very sensitive issue in China. (Indeed, imagery relating to government land-grabs led Chinese officials to stop showing versions of the film Avatar.)

But after studying these very issues in China in 2007 and 2008, I would caution readers that truly revolutionary turmoil from land disputes per se is highly unlikely.

These land disputes occur in times of economic plenty, when companies are looking to expand their operations out of cities into surrounding villages. Landless peasants are not highly destabilizing when the economy is good and they can find jobs in cities.

I would flip around Garnaut’s point: in economic hard times, land disputes are likely to become much less common as corrupt local officials have much less to gain from them; but the products of earlier land grabs–landless peasants–could prove to be a destabilizing force.

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