The spark that ignited the recent North African uprisings, 26-year-old Tunisian youth Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight because of unemployment. Bouazizi has lesser-known precedents in what is increasingly Africa and the Middle East’s most important business partner—the People’s Republic of China.
Late last year, unemployment also pushed an unnamed 22-year-old university graduate living in China’s Northeast to jump seven stories to her death, according to Chinese newspaper People’s Daily.
Bouazizi’s suicide drew attention to a part of the globe that international analysts and news consumers are now recognizing was previously ignored by its own leaders and foreign press.
Never penetrating the international consciousness at all, the Chinese suicide victim remains unnamed.
But after the recent North African uprisings, analysts are highlighting the striking similarities between Bouazizi and his unnamed Chinese counterpart. They say that Beijing is aware that despite China’s overall burgeoning economic success, unemployment—particularly among the youth—and food supply concerns in the People’s Republic both threaten to destabilize the country as they did in Tunisia and Egypt.
“The catalyst for the Tunisian revolution was the deep feeling of frustration of the youth—the absence of economic opportunities,” said Malika Zeghal, professor of Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Zeghal is French, of Tunisian origin.
Drawing a comparison with China, Zeghal described the People’s Republic as a place “where the economy is still expanding at a rapid rate, and this in spite of all the difficulties experienced by the youth.”
Commenting on the unrest in Tunisia as it rose to a boiling point in early January, Olivier Kempf, a professor specializing in NATO at Parisian university Sciences Po, wrote an article comparing Tunisia with China entitled “Tunisia, an omen for China?”
Comparing both nations, Kempf’s chief observation was that both the Tunisian and Chinese populations are “relatively educated, frustrated by, above most political considerations, difficulties in finding work, and above all, profiting from the overall growth of their countries of several years.”
Unemployment among Chinese university graduates is increasing, despite a series of measures in recent years to increase their employment rates and encourage professional training, according to Yanzhong Huang, PhD, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), who noted that in 2008 China’s unemployment rate reached over 12 percent, and that in 2009, more than 25 percent of university graduates were unable to find jobs.
This kind of large group of educated, jobless youth has been a recipe for uprisings in China’s recent past, Huang explained.
“In China, the May 4 Movement in 1919 and the June 4 Movement in 1989 were both initiated and led by university students. While the new generation of Chinese students has become more pragmatic and less idealistic, having their materialistic hope shattered could nurture a strong sense of marginalization and deprivation, which may lead to calls for radical social change.”
Recent revolutions are creating the potential for a strong group of frustrated, jobless youth more feasible. Prior to the two revolutions, youth unemployment in Tunisia reached around 30 percent, and in Egypt it reached 25 percent, according to estimations from multiple sources.
And Beijing is aware of the potential comparisons with faraway Africa. After protests started raging in Tahrir Square and the government blocked all internet connection—realizing the role of Twitter and Facebook in mobilizing Egyptian youth, China also blocked all searches of “Egypt” on a social media network popular with its young people—Sina Weibo—the Chinese version of Twitter.
China’s response to a recent drought may represent another sign that Beijing is following current events in North Africa and is worried by the social unrest caused by failing to put bread on a nation’s tables.
A special alert from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) last Tuesday, on 8 February, noted that a dry winter sweeping across the northern Chinese provinces is bound to affect agricultural production, particularly in provinces charged with producing the bulk majority of China’s wheat supply as well as other food staples.
After Beijing hadn’t seen any precipitation for 108 days—the longest dry spell in some 60 years, Xinhua reported that the Beijing Weather Modification Office shot silver iodide into the clouds in nine counties surrounding the nation’s capital on 9 February. Beijing’s Central Business District saw a brief period of snowfall until 10 February in the afternoon. Another brief period of snowfall hit the city on the morning of 12 February.
The Beijing Meteorological Bureau confirmed that in the first instance, snowfall was at least partially triggered by the authorities, explaining that atmospheric conditions need to be relatively close to those necessary for natural snowfall before operations can be conducted.
The bureau also reported on 10 February that several different provinces mentioned in the UN alert also experienced temporary rainfall after a long period of no precipitation. An Agence France-Presse report out of Henan province, one major wheat-producer deeply affected by the drought, confirmed with Henan local officials that weather modification measures had been carried out.
Wheat production represents a major quandary for the Chinese government. China’s food supply concerns arise at the tail end of Egypt’s revolution, provoked as much by a wheat crisis as the highly symbolic suicide of one unemployed Tunisian youth.
Unlike China, which has produced around 95 percent of its own total agricultural consumption for the past several years, Egypt’s main supplier of wheat—Russia—responded to a flurry of fires and droughts by halting wheat exports to Egypt until December 2010. The UN’s FAO announced that between June and August of 2010, global wheat prices doubled. Pressure weighed down heavily on a population designated by the World Bank as “lower middle income.”
After 30 years in office, with a regime marked by an elongated period of stagnation, police brutality and corruption, analysts say it was a natural disaster in Russia and less wheat in Egyptian bellies that finally ousted Mubarak.
Food shortages may anger Chinese citizens who haven’t benefited as wildly from China’s rapid-fire development, and color revolutions in North Africa may fluster the Chinese government. But there’s still no indication that Tunisia’s monumental uprising will go farther East.
“There are simmering state-society tensions in both countries. But the existence of these structural similarities does not necessarily lead to a color revolution in China,” CFR’s Huang said.
“In addition to the above structural factors, we have to take into account the choices made by the repressed, the government responses, and the strategic interaction between the two.”
Beijing’s recent gestures to avoid a food crisis show that the nation is positioning itself with its people in order to avoid instability—even if that means tampering with the weather.
Citing China’s several anti-corruption measures in the past several years as an example, Kempf also drew a line between the Chinese government and the Ben Ali regime, where a great deal of national assets were tightly guarded by the ruling family’s friends and relatives.
“The Chinese regime seems much more lucid than the kleptocracy of Ben Ali,” he said.