China’s Janus-faced response to the Arab revolutions

Soutien aux sanctions des Nations unies contre Mouammar Khadafi pour protéger ses milliers de citoyens présents en Libye, mais vague de répression chez elle pour endiguer la vague contestataire venue d’Afrique du Nord et du Moyen-Orient : la réponse de la Chine aux révolutions arabes est à deux faces, comme le dieu romain Janus, et laisse perplexe l’Union européenne pour la gestion des crises à venir, explique une étude de l’European council on foreign relations (ECFR) réalisée par Jonas Parello-Plesner et Raffaello Pantucci.

Like the United States and Europe, China was caught off-guard by the Arab Spring. It intervened to protect thousands of its citizens and its growing commercial interests in North Africa – in Libya alone, official estimates said that China had some 38,000 nationals and contracts worth a total of $18.8 billion. However, at the same time, it also had to face the possibility that the wave of protests that had engulfed the Middle East and North Africa could spread to China. The Arab revolutions were an implicit challenge to the “Beijing Consensus” of authoritarianism coupled with economic growth.

China responded to the unique position in which it found itself by zigzagging. In February, it supported UN sanctions against Muammar Gaddafi for abuses on his own people – a surprising breach of its sovereigntist approach to international relations. It also responded impressively to the threat to its citizens and was able to rescue them in relatively short order, while other nations such as India scrambled to evacuate far smaller numbers. The Chinese military, which was already deployed on a groundbreaking anti-piracy operation nearby, off the coast of East Africa, also took part in the operation to evacuate Chinese citizens. This effort in recognition of its own responsibility to protect its own citizens alongside the UN sanctions all seemed a reflection of a broader Chinese realisation that its previous posture of absolute non-interference is increasingly at odds with its global economic presence.

However, after this initial response, China appeared to rapidly pull back into its more traditional posture. It opted to abstain on the UN resolution imposing a no-fly zone on Libya, which amounted to tacit agreement. But by the time it came to Syria, its view had fully hardened and it rejected an international response through the UN to the Syrian crackdown, calling it an internal affair not be interfered in.And all the while this turmoil has been causing chaos across the Arab world, China has also cracked down internally. Security forces have cast a wide net, and detained and arrested many people whose activities bore no relation to the country’s nascent Jasmine revolutions as well as those involved in the limited protests in China in response to the Arab Spring. The arrest of artist Ai Weiwei at the beginning of April brought this crackdown to the attention of the world.

This memo examines China’s response to the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa and their implications for Europe. Like the Roman god Janus, China had a two-faced response to the Arab Spring. Externally, it went along with sanctions on Gaddafi for abuses against his people and implemented a version of “responsibility to protect” – at least towards its own citizens abroad. Internally, it clamped down on any nascent import of Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine revolution to China. For the EU, this Janus-faced response presents a dilemma. On the one hand, its initial response to Libya suggests that China could in the future become a partner for the EU in crisis management and that it is moving towards a more proactive foreign policy – its own version of a “responsible stakeholder” role. On the other hand, China’s response to protests at home – against which both EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the new EU ambassador in Beijing spoke out – represents a clear challenge to the EU’s newfound commitment to democracy promotion and to working with partners advancing similar values. The tension between these two faces of China will shape the EU-China relationship.


A new departure for Chinese foreign policy


 From the outset, China viewed the revolutions in the Middle East with suspicion. Chinese officials tried to ignore the issue, in part from a lack of understanding of what was going on, but also in order to prevent internal debates about the “Beijing Consensus” abroad and – even worse – at home. When the protests spread to Egypt, official Chinese press coverage was directed mainly at efforts to evacuate the 1,800 Chinese nationals in the country along with 300 Taiwanese – a PR coup for China. This also served to divert Chinese press coverage away from sensitive issues like democracy and social change, though some of the more liberal parts of the Chinese press, such as Caixin, wrote about the instability of autocracy and how this was at least in part inspiring the Arab attraction to democracy.

However, Gaddafi’s violent response to the revolution in Libya made it impossible for China to continue to ignore the Arab Spring. By throwing the country into chaos, the Libyan leader made the orderly evacuation of Chinese nationals more difficult. In particular, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) complained that its operations in the country were attacked by rampaging mobs during the initial upheaval. In allowing this to take place, Gaddafi violated one of China’s holiest principles : stability. A frigate that was participating in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden was redeployed to assist in rescue efforts. Four Chinese military transport planes were also sent from Xinjiang, their takeoff marking a new departure for Chinese foreign policy.

Having completed President Hu Jintao’s command to “spare no efforts to ensure the safety of life and properties of Chinese citizens in Libya”, China also gave its support to UN Security Council Resolution 1970, which imposed an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze on Gaddafi and his nearest and dearest, and made possible referral of Gaddafi and other Libyan leaders to the International Criminal Court. However,three short weeks later, the Chinese diplomatic turtle withdrew into its hard shell by abstaining on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorised the international community “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi”.

Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying tried to make the abstention resemble a no vote, declaring : “We don’t support military action against Libya, as we think this will cause even more civilian casualties.” Likewise, President Hu used the occasion of the French-sponsored G-20 meeting in Nanjing in late March to admonish French President Nicolas Sarkozy about the pernicious effect of military action, saying : “History repeatedly proves that armed force doesn’t solve problems, giving peace a chance suits the common interests of all sides.” By contrast, Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, was received as an “ally” two weeks later, after Germany had abstained in the vote on resolution 1973. The treatment of Sarkozy and Westerwelle demonstrates how the failure of the EU’s large states to coordinate foreign policy also has implications for how seriously Europe is taken in China and further abroad.

In reality, however, the Chinese abstention amounted to a tacit agreement to a no-fly zone. In 2007, China vetoed a resolution criticising Myanmar. At the time, China’s UN ambassador Wang Guangya swept the issue under the rug, stating : “No country is perfect.” China also has blocked international action over other intransigent governments such as Zimbabwe and North Korea. Traditionally, China would accept that instability and coups are part of the game of doing business in Africa without the need for interference. However, according to insiders, China never even threatened to veto resolution 1973. As one prominent academic put it : “We are in the twenty-first century, China needs to adapt.” China’s abstention and evacuation of citizens represents a tacit and qualified acceptance of the doctrine of responsibility to protect”.

This new departure in Chinese foreign policy was largely pragmatic. If Beijing had blocked action at the UN and struggled to extract its own citizens from a chaotic situation, it could have faced criticism at home. China was also influenced by traditional South-South cooperation, which made it pay attention to the views of the other Arab nations and regional organisations such as the Arab League that were in favour of UN action. The crisis also came at a time when China was seeking to improve its foreign policy image. Rightly or wrongly, China spent much of last year being portrayed in the region as an aggressive neighbour in Asia. Furthermore, the US-Russia reset has made Russia a more cooperative partner for the West, leaving China with nobody to hide behind at the UN. The Libyan ambassador’s personal denouncement of Gaddafi at the Security Council gave China another reason to consider this a special case.

China may also have simply lost patience with Gaddafi. His declaration on state television early during the protests that “the unity of China was more important than the people of Tiananmen Square” will have gotten pulses racing among the Chinese leadership, who will not have appreciated the events of June 1989 being compared with his domestic crackdown. Beijing will also not have forgotten Gaddafi’s flirtation with Taiwan’s former leader Chen Shui-bian. Gaddafi also snubbed China by sending only a junior delegate to the China-Africa summit in 2006. At the China-Africa summit in 2009, the then Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa scorned the host and soon also gave an interview in which he stated : “When we look at the reality on the ground we find that there is something akin to a Chinese invasion on the African continent. This is something that brings to mind the effects that colonialism had on the African continent.” This terminology will not have been well received in Beijing, which goes to great lengths to characterise its presence in Africa as a “win-win” situation.

But although these factors may suggest China’s response to the Libya crisis was a one-off, there are also reasons to think it may indicate a longer-term shift in Chinese foreign policy, dictated by the increasing number of Chinese citizens and workers abroad. In 2005, there were three million Chinese abroad. Now, the number has almost doubled to five million. Around one million of them are in potentially troubled parts of Africa. It is clear that there are now a number of countries that are too big – in terms of the number of Chinese citizens there – to fail. This means that the “going out” strategy orchestrated by the Ministry of Commerce and spearheaded by eager Chinese provinces now has to be squared with broader strategic calculations. With the Libya evacuation, the Chinese government has demonstrated that it will do what it takes to get its citizens out of chaotic situations in large numbers, something it had already started to do on a smaller scale in Pakistan and unstable parts of Africa when insurgent or terrorist groups kidnapped Chinese nationals.

This trend is likely to bring China further out into the world and test its foreign policy principles, just as broadening interests changed the behaviour of the UK and the US in preceding centuries. China’s citizens are starting to feel the same need for protection all over the globe, forcing Beijing to shoulder one of the many burdens of great-power status. In that respect, a red thread connects Sudan, where China provided election observers for the Southern referendum in 2011, to Libya and Ivory Coast, where China accepted the need for the international community to intervene in domestic crises. Professor Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University even sees this new departure in Chinese foreign policy as an expression of Confucian morality in which “the sphere of concern for any humane ruler should be the whole world, not just the people of one state”.


The crackdown in China


Meanwhile, as it responded to the foreign policy crisis in Libya, China also faced a domestic challenge as the scent of jasmine spread to China. Anonymous online organizers saw the trouble in Tunisia and Egypt and called for citizens to participate in protests in designated places in major cities, telling individuals to simply stroll by the protest area in order to avoid attracting attention from security officials.

These “protests” started to take place in late January, as the trouble in North Africa first caught on. For the most part, protesters were outnumbered by the Chinese police and the foreign media. However, the security apparatus in China disrupted the protests in bizarre ways : the Shanghai protest was disrupted by street-cleaning machines and policemen with whistles. But there were also more traditional shows of force, like the detention and beatings of foreign journalists at Wangfujing, in Beijing. This led to international media coverage and the government’s reaction to the protests became a bigger story than the protests themselves.

Since February there has been a widespread crackdown on activists, lawyers and social-rights advocates in the form of regular arrests and extra-judicial disappearances. The internet seems to be being censored more actively and reports suggest that access points circumventing the firewall such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are being attacked. A foreign ministry spokesman’s statement that journalists should not use “the law as a shield” suggests that a decision had been taken to crack down more generally with full authorisation. The Chinese regime seems to have been particularly alarmed by the way that the self-immolation of a 26-year-old in Tunisia could set a whole region alight. Politburo member and security head Zhou Yongkang told his forces that the lesson of Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled was that they should “strive to defuse conflicts and disputes while they are still embryonic”.

It’s not clear whether the regime’s fears are justified. Some polls actually suggest that the Chinese people are relatively happy. The Pew Research Center’s 2010 polls showed that 87 percent of Chinese were satisfied with the state of their country, compared to 28 percent in Egypt ; and 91 percent saw the country’s economic situation as good, compared to 20 percent of Egyptians. However, other polls paint a bleaker picture, with the Chinese struggling particularly against rising prices.

The Chinese leadership may have thought it could quietly crack down while the world’s attention was focused on Libya (and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan). But although this may have worked for a while, the decision to arrest the internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei and subsequently prosecute him for economic crimes tipped the balance and brought widespread international condemnation, including from Europe. In April, the Global Times, a nationalistic staterun newspaper, carried a virulent attack on Ai Weiwei that made clear he deserved to be arrested. However, two days later, it appeared to criticise the arrest. It said that if Ai Weiwei was acquitted (albeit an unlikely outcome), “the authorities should be more cautious and find sufficient evidence before detaining public figures next time”.

It is unlikely that the Chinese government will be able to prevent citizens from speaking their mind. Ordinary Chinese are increasingly demanding justice and fairness. Bloggers are taking up cases of injustice from all over the country such as that of a University of Hebei student who was killed in a hit-and-run incident involving the son of Li Gang, a local official. The son’s cry as he left the scene, “My father is Li Gang”, became a synonym for official corruption in the Chinese blogosphere. Domestic microblogs have filled the void left by blocked foreign sites such as Twitter and Facebook. In the 20 months since they started appearing in China (in October 2009), 70 percent of hot microblog topics concerned improper behaviour or remarks by government officials and another 20 percent concerned the police.

The government is trying to keep up by blocking internet searches involving controversial words and phrases. At one point in late February 2011, the word “Huntsman” was blocked when it emerged that the US Ambassador Jon Huntsman was present at one of the early protests in Beijing. Later, an attempt was made to block the word “jasmine” – which meant that images of Chinese leaders singing songs about the flower itself rather than the revolution were also blocked. Ai Weiwei’s name was also blocked, but Chinese “netizens” responded by speaking instead of “Ai Weilai” – which means “love the future”.

The crackdown that has followed the Arab revolutions puts in doubt China’s commitment to political reform. At exactly the time in early March that Wen Jiabao was promising to continue political reform at the National People’s Congress, the security forces were contradicting his words by rounding up activists. But while the crackdown may have initially been a reaction to events in North Africa and the Middle East, it has continued long enough to suggest that the regime is also now using the Arab Spring as a convenient excuse to postpone political reform – just like it did with the Tibet riots and the Olympics in 2008, the Xinjiang riots and the sensitive 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in 2009, and the Shanghai Expo and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. In the run-up to July’s 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and the leadership transition in 2012, the prospects for political reform in the next year are non-existent.


Europe’s dilemma


China’s external response to the Arab Spring and particularly Libya suggests that China will move towards a more proactive foreign policy on crisis management. As China learns that support for unstable regimes can have a direct negative impact on China’s interests in foreign lands, and can ultimately lead to costly evacuations of Chinese citizens working for Chinese companies, it may become more willing to cooperate with other partners including the EU on good governance in other countries, particularly in Africa. For example, China has played a positive role in Sudan and even sent observers to monitor the referendum on independence in Southern Sudan in January.

In order to influence this internal debate in China about how to manage risk abroad, the EU should thus seek to develop a “stability pact plus” with China to coordinate abroad, starting with more innocuous issues such as consular protection. Likewise, it makes sense to try to breathe new life into the moribund EU-Africa cooperation on development. This will be a means to influence the learning curve that China’s internal thinking is undergoing on risk management, which could include a pragmatic wish for good governance in other countries in order to protect its investments abroad. In this context, in-depth European expertise and knowledge on parts of the world such as North Africa can be used to establish dialogue with Chinese foreign policy and business circles, which have less experience of these regions. Europe and China will continue to have deep and growing interests in unstable parts of Africa. It makes sense to start to do more crisis-management planning together and to think through where they might support each other in the event of a local breakdown in civil order.

Another lesson from the Arab Spring is that it is sometimes easier to influence China through others. China’s abstention on UN Security Resolution 1973 was influenced by the support of the Arab League and the African Union for intervention. The EU should add a discreet China component to many of its dialogues with emerging countries. This means that, when looking to get movement on UN action towards a trouble spot, the EU should focus on persuading regional multilateral actors or other BRICs and on highlighting their deliberations in discussions with the Chinese. Clearly, China is more willing to act when regional multilateral actors or traditional South-South allies have spoken. China cannot hide behind the language of non-interference when such countries make clear requests for action.

Nevertheless, China’s response to Arab revolutions suggests that, even if it becomes more helpful in promoting good governance and in crisis management in places like Africa, it is likely to continue to suppress demands for democracy at home. This presents a complicated paradox for the EU, especially as it attempts to be more proactive in promoting democratic norms globally.

The EU will have to remain vocal and consistent on China’s human rights and internal reform process, even if it incites Chinese anger and results in a reaction in other fields. While China is not going to react by hurting its own interests, it is likely to react in ways that will be frustrating to European policymakers. For example, in response to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, China appears to have decided to hold up salmon imports from Norway. Similar soft sanctions have been levied on other EU member states that have held high-level meetings with the Dalai Lama. Interestingly, however, crucial interests have not been affected. For example, while Norwegian salmon may be rotting in their containers, a number of extractive industry deals have gone ahead. This reflects both the increasing interdependence of the EU-China relationship and the Chinese government’s fury at what is seen as foreign interference in internal affairs.

Europe must strike a balance if it is to uphold its vision of a foreign policy that promotes European values around the world. As Nicolas Sarkozy put it at the EU summit on 24 March : “Every ruler … must understand that the reaction of the international community and Europe will from now on be the same each time … We will be on the side of peaceful protesters who must not be repressed with violence.” How to apply this dictum to China remains a challenge for the EU. Just as China’s response to the Arab revolutions was Janusfaced, Europe will in the future have to make hard choices between values and interests in its China policy.