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Toppled Government in Kyrgyzstan Raises Uncomfortable Memories for Beijing

Social Stability and the Legacy of Tiananmen Square
9 April 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

Most commentary on the April 7th protests and apparent collapse of Kyrgyzstan’s government has focused on the Kyrgyz political situation, the failure of the 2005 Tulip Revolution, (former?) president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s autocratic behavior, and the roles of the United States and Russia.

But I want to turn readers’ attention to the relevance of this event for China. And there could even be serious implications for U.S. global economic and political priorities.

This week’s events in Kyrgyzstan parallel, in some ways, China’s own Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Those were also a fairly spontaneous, nation-wide movement responding to both political repression and rising prices. In both 1989 China and 2010 Kyrgyzstan, many policemen and soldiers refused to attack their countrymen. Both culminated in violence in the capital (though the Chinese student protest movement, unlike the Kyrgyz opposition, was unarmed and peaceful).

The Kyrgyz government fell for a multitude of reasons, but the main two are a widespread perception of government corruption and price hikes for electricity and heating, planned at 170% and 400% respectively for 2010. The China Daily describes the government’s failings this way:

The violent clashes were reportedly sparked by discontent over corruption, nepotism and rising prices in a nation where one-third of the 5.3 million population live below the poverty line.

Chinese Communist Party leaders have always been jittery about protecting their rule. Instances of domestic instability, especially protests in land disputes, have drawn substantial government attention. And when ethnic riots broke out in Xinjiang during the G-8 summit in July 2009, Hu Jintao cut short his participation in the summit to rush back to Beijing and attempt to keep the situation from deteriorating.

Amidst still very high levels of poverty, growing incidents of social unrest, major corruption scandals, and creeping inflation, Chinese leaders are preparing to begin allowing the renminbi to appreciate, something that is a very high priority issue for the Obama administration.

But on the value of the renminbi and countless other international issues, significant constituencies within China oppose actions that can be perceived as potentially contributing to social instability: sanctions against Iran might raise oil prices; a higher-valuation currency could mean substantial losses in export sector jobs.

Unrest in Kyrgyzstan is a reminder to China’s leaders of the delicate domestic balances they must maintain in order to remain in power. (Indeed, fear of “color revolutions” was explicitly cited in China’s recent harsh response to the dissident “Charter ’08” movement.)

This could make them even more reluctant to take bold steps that have economic repercussions in China–even at the risk of alienating the United States.

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