Media pundits in the West are contemplating the $6 million question of "if Egypt is the next Tunisia, what is the next Egypt?" Many see that China stands a good chance of becoming the next Egypt.
Forbes's Gordon Chang, for example, insists "Now that Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution has inspired Egyptians, autocrats in the region nervously watch for signs of unrest in their own countries. Middle Eastern despots are not the only ones worried. Beijing's leaders are concerned that 1.3 billion enraged souls will rise up and tear down the People's Republic of China. China's communists have every right to be concerned. In a world connected by optic fiber, revolutionary fervor not only crosses from one country to the next but from one continent to another. Beijing's officials know every resentment felt by Tunisians and Egyptians is shared by those they rule."
Some China watchers like Chang have gone as far as to suggest that "Twice in their past-in 1911 and 1949-China's people opted for radical political change. After the unexpected events in Tunisia and Egypt-and after more than 60 years of Communist Party misrule at home-we could see the third Chinese revolution this year."
These commentators, however, have stretched their imagination too far. Their comparison of the domestic situations in Egypt and China are fundamentally flawed and misleading.
For a starter, these analyses largely missed a real reason behind the riots in Cairo. As Vincent Truglia, managing director of global economic research at Granite Springs Asset Management, points out, "The protest in Egypt is not simply a sudden desire for reform. Rather, the key problem is the price of food. There are two vexing problems for the Egyptian government: first, a rising population of about 80 million; and second, declining per capita domestic food production. This is not about politics, it is about food."
What is perhaps more important is the domestic situation in China. As Christina Larson, contributing editor at Foreign Policy and Washington Monthly who reports widely from China, puts it, "by almost any quantifiable measure-per capita income; access to goods and services; educational attainment, etc.-Chinese people's lives are, on the whole, getting better. There is plenty of cynicism; but even while griping, most people in China are striving to get ahead-and for now, a fair number of them are. Older Chinese are usually quick to point out that the relative calm of present-day China is far preferable to the tumultuous violence of past eras. Nor do younger strivers necessarily want to rock the boat. As long as people's lives are getting better, most can look the other way about goings-on up top."
What allows China to thrive thus far is an experiment of hyper-charged economic development without much political change. While China's extraordinary economic success to date is impossible to refute, however, Egypt has largely missed out-the country today ranks 137 in the world in per-capita income, with a population in the top 20. The lesson of Mubarak government's failure is really very simple, as the Wall Street Journal's Zachary Karabell puts it "You can have economic reform, or you can have political reform, but you cannot have neither." President Mubarak, however, has managed to forestall both.
The fact that Chinese people have enjoyed more than twofold of the annual rate of growth as their Egyptian counterparts over the last three decades is further compounded by another important difference in Egyptian and Chinese political systems: the orderly transition of political power.
The now 82-year-old Mubarak came to power after the 1981 assassination of his predecessor Anwar Sadat. Among today's demonstrators' apprehensions are Mubarak's near-militant lockdown on political opposition for his 30 years in power as well as the lack of a designated successor.
This is not the case in China. Everyone in China and in the world is expecting that the current top leaders in Beijing will step down as scheduled, to be followed by an orderly rotation of leaders in 2012. Such an orderly transition of power, as Larson argues, "has one strategic advantage: it makes it unlikely that the leaders at the top will become a lightning-rod, attracting popular hatred the way Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak have."
So could the turmoil and riots rocking Egypt today inspire similar uprisings in China tomorrow? Will China be the next Egypt? The answer to both questions is: No.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.