Ironic that undemocratic China was unwittingly among the greatest triggers of the Arab revolution

Mar 23, 2011 Published under Democracy and Freedom (or lack of), Middle East

The most fundamental causes of the popular uprisings across the Arab world are of course peoples’ desire for freedom and rule of law, and their disgust at corruption and oppression.  Few times in history do totalitarian or authoritarian regimes successfully repress their people for more than two generations, and zero times in history do these regimes last much longer than that, relatively speaking.

And yet, what were the triggers to the Jasmine revolution? Was it Obama’s historic election and his speech in Cairo in 2009? Was it President Bush’s exhortation of democracy? Was it the Wikileaks? We know that the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi was the immediate trigger in Tunisia. But what made the population so ready to react with enormous support to kindle the historic street demonstrations and revolutions to spread across the Arab world?

Among the greatest contributors was the rise of food prices, which surged 40% in the preceding year.  More acutely, staples like rice and other core grains rose exponentially.  The surge in prices of essential commodities actually displaced a staggering number of people from middle class to poverty.  By some estimates, 40 million Arabs descended below poverty levels over the last two years because they could not afford food to put on the table. 

The biggest factor contributing to the rise in commodities and food prices is of course the growth of China.  As hundreds of millions of Chinese have improved their standard of living, this has put enormous pressure on natural resources, raw materials, and food basics, among others.

It is thus ironic that the greatest trigger to demand freedom in the Arab world was not the work of great democracies like the United States or France, but, unwittingly, the growth of a China, a country under the leadership of another totalitarian one-party regime.  The irony will close the cycle when the movement for openness boomerangs and catches up with Chinese repression.

Russia and China have maintained that people prize stability over freedom and that as long as the central State creates conditions for economic growth, people will be complacent and will be willing to literally sell away their rights.  In fact, this very economic growth will eventually catch up with these regimes.

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