Cracks in the wall: why Bahrain may bother Beijing

Cracks in the wall: why Bahrain may bother Beijing

Bahrain is an island kingdom in the Persian Gulf with a population of about 1.2 million. The People’s Republic of China is 12,000 times as large and 1,000 times as populous. Yet what is happening in Manama ought to be profoundly disquieting to the strongmen of Beijing.

Seen from a distance, the Arab revolts of 2011 all seem connected and broadly similar: The spark with which a Tunisian vegetable seller set himself ablaze spread on the invisible wind of satellite signals and is now burning to the ground regimes that are mainly alike in their record of greed, incompetence and despotism.

Yet, on closer inspection, the convulsing states of the Arab world look more like Tolstoy’s classic description of unhappy families: Each is unhappy in its own way. Yemen’s protests have a large secessionist element. The demonstrators in Tahrir Square were urban middle class. Libya’s revolt has an important tribal dimension. The protests in Algiers are largely about rising prices and mass unemployment. The beleaguered regimes also vary widely, from the mildly authoritarian in Morocco to the brutishly totalitarian in Libya.

These differences matter because while the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya may be momentous and vivid, they are not particularly interesting. Mubarak, Ben Ali, Saleh and Gadhafi were (or are) lousy rulers: They finally got their long-overdue comeuppance. Sic semper tyrannis.

But then what about little Bahrain? Its people have a per capita GDP of $27,000, women have the franchise, and the country is an excellent place in which to invest. And despite having a minority Sunni government ruling over the Shiite majority, the country is religiously tolerant enough to have a Jewish woman as its ambassador to the US.

What Bahrainis don’t have is political freedom. Representative government is a sham. The ruling al-Khalifa family calls all the shots—and, when threatened, fires them too. Add rising economic expectations and growing inequality to the mix, and you have the ingredients of a bourgeois revolution.

What you also have is a lesson in the nature of freedom-seeking. The place in which that matters most is China.

Ever since Deng Xiaoping launched the “Four Modernizations" in 1978, China’s leaders have gambled that they could turn the country into a great economic power without risking their political monopoly. When challenged on this score—as they were by dissident Wei Jingsheng’s “Fifth Modernization" (democracy) in 1978, or by the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, or more recently by the Charter 08 movement—they have resorted to brute repression. But in quieter times, they, along with like-minded authoritarians, have been confident enough to stake a philosophical claim for their style of rule.

For many years, that claim was defended as a function of “Asian values": the idea that the public welfare was best served by enlightened one-party rule that nurtured economic growth but drew the line at anything that threatened social harmony, political competition most of all. “I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development," Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew once said. “I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy."

Say what you will about that view, it’s hard to gainsay the economic gains that Singapore, Malaysia and China all made over the last 30-odd years. But are those gains sustainable in the long term? Probably not.

“Most ruling elites are aware that economic development will result in the emergence of powerful challengers to power and probably the loss of the political monopoly," writes Chinese American scholar Minxin Pei in his book China’s Trapped Transition. What follows is a bit dense, but worth reading carefully:

“Such a realization would prompt the agents of the regime to increase their discount rate for future income from the monopoly and, consequently, intensify their efforts to maximize current income while maintaining a high level of repression to deter challengers. In addition, the collapse of a foreign regime with similar characteristics may make fears of losing one’s own power even more acute and real. The net effects of the combination of a growing sense of long-term insecurity and the demonstration effects of a fallen fellow autocracy may be those akin to a run on the bank, with agents rushing to cash in their political investments in the regime, quickening the collapse of the regime’s authority."

In recent weeks, Beijing has been censoring news about the Arab revolt and putting down small but widespread protests that draw inspiration from it. No doubt the regime will succeed in the short term. But what has happened in Bahrain is a tiny but telling shot across Beijing’s gigantic bow. Economic growth will not save it. Neither, in the long run, will repression.

Where the Arab revolt goes next, and what it produces, is anyone’s guess. But its lesson for authoritarians everywhere is already clear: Until they grant their people democracy, their quest for discipline will only hasten their demise.

The Wall Street Journal

Bret Stephens, is a columnist for ‘The Wall Street Journal’

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