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.
Today’s incidents of political opposition bear little resemblance to the Tiananmen protests, which is what makes them a greater threat to China’s political establishment. Protests, demonstrations and other forms of resistance are localized, diverse and common. China’s success is partly to blame for the spread of dissent throughout the country, for the growth of the economy has increased the ranks of the middle class and the development of the free market has provided cover for the spread of political speech. Unlike Syria, dissent in China increased as the country become more successful and people developed greater expectations. Land-reform movements, homeowner associations, environmental activism and independent labor unions are but a few of the myriad of interests that now operate outside state control.
Unlike in Syria, autonomous interest groups in China are not calling for a revolution against state leadership, nor are they pursuing Western-style democracy. These groups mobilize around specific interests and almost uniformly call for moderate political reform: a more responsive legal system, greater government transparency or stronger government regulation, for example. They do not wish to see the removal of China’s current system, but they do want government corruption to be reigned in, laws to be equally applied, and their homes less at risk from contaminants and pollution. Thus far, these moderate demands have led to little change.
The Chinese Communist Party has flirted with reform and promised to stamp out the most obscene examples of official excess, but for the most part the Chinese state has sought to adapt its coercive tools to isolate and silence dissent. The Great Firewall continually monitors social media and electronic communications, while a new generation of local officials works with private business to inhibit activist organizations at the local level. Yet, there can be no denying that China is an increasingly contentious state due to the government’s refusal to initiate real reform.
China’s leaders are not ignorant of the changes occurring within their society, nor have they overlooked growing frustrations over the pace of reform. This is why China limits information regarding the Arab Spring and incidents of popular mobilization anywhere around the globe. The Syrian revolution is the latest incident that must be kept out of public discussion, for the fear is that it could inspire domestic activists to pursue a more radical and direct approach to change.
Regardless of how Chinese activists view the Syrian revolution, it is clear that the revolution has been poisonous for China. The state’s refusal to discuss changes in policy has drawn attention to the vulnerabilities in its own system. Supporting Assad against revolutionaries has complicated relations with the Gulf States, countries whose resources and friendship have long been courted by Beijing.
China’s refusal to discuss means by which to end the conflict have increased perceptions that it is not yet ready for the mantle of world leadership. These costs have been borne in order to secure a leadership transition and keep dissenting voices caged. The irony is that Assad’s current predicament is related to his own unwillingness to listen to moderate reformist voices. It’s a mistake that Chinese leaders also seem intent on making, at least for now.
Jeffrey Payne is the academic-resources coordinator at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.