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China's eye on Egypt

The Age

Tuesday February 15, 2011

JOHN GARNAUT

The seeds of democracy, so well fertilised in Egypt, are now blowing all the way to China. DESPITE Beijing's considerable efforts to prevent it, there is not a thoughtful person in China who hasn't been asking these past few days how their country compares with Egypt.The parallels include fast economic growth exceptionally fast in China's case accompanied by widening inequalities, systematic corruption and a crisis of injustice.The distinction that matters for the moment, which makes a Chinese people's uprising a practical impossibility, is that the Chinese Communist Party is a more professional and well-resourced dictatorship.Five years ago, China's Ministry of State Security directly employed roughly 10,000 people in domestic intelligence collection and analysis activities, according to a source. Since then, their numbers have more than tripled.The CCP has also massively strengthened its organisational structures to keep itself unified and embedded in every facet of organised life: its "united front" activities to co-opt private enterprise, religious groups and the Chinese diaspora; and its propaganda systems to keep pace with technology. Last year the Propaganda Department boasted of deleting 350 million items of "harmful" information and that was only up until November.The Chinese Communist Party controls the largest and most sophisticated regime-security apparatus the world has seen. That's why it is not about to be swept aside. But it is also its greatest weakness.It is reasonably well understood that the rise and rise of state power is under attack from Chinese lawyers, journalists, economists and members of the liberal right. Professor Yu Jianrong is an eloquent exponent of how tightening political control is translating into greater social discontent in a self-generating spiral. Economist Xu Xiaonian warns that China risks being trapped in a stage of crony capitalism, where no official can find the energy to give up a system that so readily transforms their unfettered political power into cash. What is ignored outside China is how the system is under savage attack from the opposite direction.The joke in all the hype about a "Beijing Consensus" allegedly encroaching across the planet is there is no consensus even in Beijing. Whereas the right wants to redress corruption and inequality by reining in the state and bolstering the market, the left wants the same result by reining in the market and bolstering the state.For 30 years, the Communist Party has forged ideological unity around Deng Xiaoping's "two hands" formula of a market-based economy and uncompromising political control. When the contradictions inherent in this approach flared in 1989, Deng's solution was to defer any resolution and make the tensions worse. He massacred the students, rebuilt the party's security apparatus and expanded the market economy.The nepotism and corruption enjoyed by Deng's children may have been exceptional in 1989, but it is now the norm for those born into the communist aristocracy. Whether you're in private equity, a sprawling state-owned enterprise or a local village enterprise, the endgame is the same: connect the right Communist Party official (or their relative) with the market and turn public money into private gold.Left and right both agree that the Deng consensus is crumbling under the weight of inequality, corruption and injustice. But they can't agree on whether to dismantle the "open market" or "tight political control" side of his legacy.President Hu Jintao has squandered eight years in mortal combat with his predecessor. Powerful princelings have dealt themselves out of the debate by their kleptocratic hypocrisy. The country has reached gridlock.It is no coincidence that the only two obviously popular members of the Politburo are those who have come closest to openly challenging the Deng consensus. Much depends on how the Mao-singing Chongqing party boss, Bo Xilai, and democracy-talking Premier Wen Jiabao reach accommodation.Meanwhile, as Egypt has exposed its leaders standing naked, one can imagine the scramble at propaganda central that came up with yesterday's headlines. "Premier Wen Jiabao: Public satisfaction is the only standard for measuring government work", proclaimed several leading news sites, including The People's Daily and the Sina news portal. The funny thing is, Wen made those comments to "10 grassroots delegates" at party central on the day the protests started in Egypt January 25.

© 2011 The Age

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