If you were like me two weeks ago, you might have been listening and/or watching Al-Jazeera English at work as disgruntled Facebook users thronged the streets of Egypt demanding the resignation of Hosni Mubarak who, until his ouster, challenged Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi for title of Most Goonish-looking World Leader.
Anyway, as I watched the events unfold, I kept hearing the commentators and expert guests say that Egypt is a pivot point in the region and that “As Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East.” Although the wave of protests that swept Egypt (and which, lest we forget, began in Tunisia) has indeed spread across the Arab world, in some ways the tale of Mubarak’s fall is just a classic tale of a poor, oppressed citizenry rising up and overthrowing their rich, oppressive ruler. It’s a Marxist class struggle for the social networking age! And while the ability of the youth in Egypt to topple a decades-old regime should put entrenched autocrats everywhere on notice, I think the more revolutionary event that presages the world ahead is the uprising in Bahrain.
In case you tuned back out of this part of the world as soon as the drama in Egypt ended, here’s a synopsis: Bahrain is an island nation in the Persian Gulf that has been ruled by the last 200 years by the Khalifa family. The Khalifa dynasty is Sunni, while the majority of the country is Shi’ite. Protestors in Bahrain, no doubt inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have taken to the streets, demanding among other things, more democracy and an end to government discrimation against the Shia majority. Although Bahrain is a kingdom, it does have a parliament, and something resembling a free press. The government has said it will open talks with all elements of society to address their grievances.
Another thing Bahrain has is oil, and perhaps more importantly, lots of oil refineries. This means that, much like in the UAE and Qatar, Bahrain’s economic figures look more like something you might see in Eastern or Central Europe than the Middle East. Indeed, while Tunisia’s GDP per capita at Purchasing Power Parity was only $8,600 and Egypt’s all of $5,900, Bahrain’s is $24,000. The Human Development Index, a measure of well-being that takes into account standards of living, life expectancy and a host of other indicators, puts Bahrain in the highest category (Developed countries), at 39th, just ahead of Portugal. The arrangement in Bahrain is similar to that in other gulf statelets like Kuwait, Qatar, etc: the government spends some of its massive oil wealth on social welfare programs and direct cash payments to keep the people generally quiescent. In some ways, Bahrain might be a preview of the UAE and Qatar in a few decades; Bahrain is likely to be the first Gulf state to exhaust its oil reserves.
SO, what does any of this have to do with China? We know the Chinese government was concerned enough about the example the Egyptian masses were setting that historic events got very little coverage in state media, and in fact, the search term “Egypt” was blocked on Sina, China’s equivalent of Twitter. But really, Egypt isn’t much like China: while Egypt stagnated under Mubarak, China’s economy has taken off, surpassing Japan to become the 2nd largest in the world, and in all likelihood, it will pass the US in a decade or so. Moreover, Egypt has a much younger and more restless population than China. In Egypt the median age is 24; in China it’s 33. So China doesn’t really have the same ingredients that led to revolution in Egypt. And while China probably isn’t that much like Bahrain either, the Chinese Communist Party has made essentially the same bargain with its citizens that the Gulf sheikdoms have: Prosperity in exchange for freedoms. Of course, massive oil wealth has made it easier for the Gulf states to maintain their end of this bargain, just doling out the revenues; while China has had to work significantly harder, constructing the a large and incredibly efficient industrial export machine. But the example of Bahrain shows that people won’t accept this trade off forever.
Of course, there are unique factors in Bahrain that don’t necessarily apply to China: sectarian grievances; reliance on a larger neighbor (Saudi Arabia) for money and defence; and perhaps most uniquely, smallness: Bahrain is an island with a population 1/1000th the size of China’s. But nevertheless, Bahrain might be the wealthiest country to have people take to the streets to overthrow a government (unless one counts Tea Partiers in the US). All the more reason for China to question its model of social and political development. And perhaps in the meantime to block searches of “Bahrain” on Baidu.