China Waking Up to the Smell of Jasmine

After anti-government demonstrations rocked the Arab world, will China face its own wave of civil unrest?

Is China bracing for its own wave of civil unrest? After anti-government demonstrations swept the Middle East for weeks, dissent and dissatisfaction may be mounting in the Middle Kingdom where despite high economic growth, there remains a huge disparity in income between the burgeoning cities of the eastern seaboard and the impoverished hinterland.

China is coping with youth unemployment of its own as a whole generation of educated middle class adolescents are flooding the labor market. The county’s economic miracle of recent years has largely been driven by manufacturing but already China is losing its cheap labor advantage to smaller nations in East Asia.

Among the urban elite there is a growing political awareness. Entrepreneurs and professionals are increasingly critical of economic planning while the lack of political freedoms has inspired minor protests in the otherwise prosperous coastal regions.

Thousand of demonstrations take place across China every year. The Chinese state spends as much on internal security as it does on external defense and fueling the unrest is not merely forced relocation, pollution or corruption. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elizabeth C. Economy, people are frustrated with the systemic weakness of their country’s governance structure.

There are over 100,000 protests every year in China not because the pollution is terrible (which it is) but rather because there is a lack of transparency, official accountability and the rule of law that make it difficult for public grievances to be effectively addressed.

The ruling Communist Party has managed to contain dissent by boasting economic growth but as Chinese real estate developer Zhang Xin explained last year, that’s not enough. “All we’re allowed to do is make money,” she complained.

Beijing may seek to improve environmental conditions and enhance accountability but those are symptoms of a problem, writes Economy, not the roots of the challenge.

Protests will continue and likely only expand as more people enter the middle class with greater expectations of a political voice and greater access to communication through the Internet.

As the Chinese become richer, educated and more worldly, they will increasingly demand the power to take matters into their own hands. “The Jasmine Revolution,” as last month’s revolt in Tunisia was dubbed, may not have flowered yet in China, “but it seems clear that the roots have been planted.”