With its recent veto in the United Nations Security Council, the People’s Republic of China has signaled its continued support of Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria. Beijing also has put its money behind the embattled dictator. Of the three strongest supporters of the Syrian regime—China, Iran and Russia—it is China that has invested the most financial resources. While the decision to back Assad is partially related to strategic and economic interests, China’s support is also directly related to political insecurities within its own system.
China is currently in the midst of a leadership transition, a once-a-decade phenomenon that is unique to Chinese authoritarianism. The result of a plan put in place by Deng Xiaoping to diminish the instability created by elite competition, the leadership transition includes an overhaul of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council. Public uniformity and stability are absolutely essential during this transition, which means that international entanglements should be avoided and new policy decisions delayed.
Supporting the Assad regime has been the long-standing position of the Chinese state. The Syrian state’s brutal tactics during the revolution and the international community’s frustration toward China are important considerations, but these are not vital enough to warrant a change in policy. Given increased tensions with its Asian neighbors and Chinese Communist Party embarrassments, the crisis in Syria is simply not of paramount importance to China during this sensitive time.
Another factor helps shape China’s Syria policy—the Chinese state’s fear of revolution. The Arab Spring, of which the Syrian revolution is a part, was a massive populist movement against authoritarianism. The Chinese Communist Party has been wary of popular mobilization against its rule for some time and for just cause.
China presents itself as remarkably stable, in part because of the effectiveness of the Chinese Communist Party and the benefits gained from thirty years of amazing economic expansion. For the most part, the world has accepted this image of China. Yet, throughout the reform era there have been several periods in which popular sentiment has publicly conflicted with party rule. The most famous is the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, an event that led to a crackdown on dissidents and the strict control over the population’s ability to congregate in numbers.