Beijing looks warily at Egypt uprising

By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
February 13, 2011

The Chinese government, nervous about comparisons between Tahrir and Tiananmen, is downplaying Egyptian protesters' joy and emphasizing the need for stability in Cairo.

On some social networking sites, searches for the word "Egypt" were blocked. As in Egypt, China's leadership in 1989 was challenged by a nationwide, popular uprising.

Wary of the parallels between Tahrir and Tiananmen, Beijing is hardly celebrating the popular uprising in Egypt that brought down an authoritarian regime.

The Chinese government offered a sobering assessment Saturday of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement that China hoped "the latest developments help restore national stability and social order at an early date."

News coverage of the 18-day uprising has emphasized looting, rioting and violence, while downplaying the jubilation of the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square. A short editorial Saturday in the state-run English-language China Daily used the word "stability," a favorite of the Chinese Communist Party, seven times. It warned that "any political changes will be meaningless if the country falls prey to chaos in the end."

Since the beginning of the Egyptian turmoil, keyword Internet searches on the protests returned no results on microblogs and reader discussion of news reports about Egypt was disabled on major portals.

A search under the word "Egypt" on microblogs such as that on popular web portal resulted in a message saying the search result could not be shown "based on the relevant laws, regulations and policies".

While state-run newspapers and television have reported on the events in Egypt and Tunisia, readers have not been allowed to post remarks. On web portal, a message this week said the comment section had been closed.

But Chinese dissidents and critics greeted Mubarak's downfall with undisguised glee.

"Today, we are all Egyptian,'' Ai Weiwei, a dissident and artist, said in a Twitter posting. "It only took 18 days for the collapse of a military regime which was in power for 30 years and looked harmonious and stable. This thing [the Chinese government] that has been for 60 years may take several months.''

In a bold retort to the party's rhetoric about stability, the influential new business magazine Caixin editorialized on its Web page Saturday: "It is autocracy that creates chaos, while democracy breeds peace. Supporting an autocracy is in reality trading short-term interests for long-term costs."

From the beginning of the protests in Egypt last month, the Chinese propaganda machine sought to limit and direct coverage. Although the story was too big to expunge, news media were directed to run reports only from the state-run New China News Agency.

Although those protests were famously quashed by the tanks that rolled into Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government has reason to watch events in Egypt with trepidation. China, like Egypt, is plagued by high inflation and unemployment rates among recent university graduates.

"Our economy is doing much better than Egypt's, but the political systems have some striking similarities," said Minxin Pei, a Chinese-born political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

"Both regimes have narrow bases of support in their society, which means the system is fundamentally fragile.íK And there's been this obsession with stability, which prevents governments from taking the necessary reforms to open up the political system."