China’s reaction to the Arab Spring
The upsurge of the Arab Spring caught China by surprise. China’s foreign policy operates in the Middle East under the premise that authoritarian Arab regimes are immutable, especially the dictatorial regimes in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. For this reason, violent revolutions in these countries came as a shock to China. They reminded the nation of the massive Tiananmen Square protest in 1989 and the subsequent violence. It took China an entire decade to recuperate from this internal haemorrhage, although the scars of the massacre will be permanently present in the collective psyche of the Chinese people. This chapter proposes to examine China’s reaction to the Arab uprisings, to open a debate on China’s lack of a systematic approach to deal with the revolutions and to inquire about China’s lack of a coherent policy towards the Arab Spring. China’s inconsistencies in its foreign policy stem from its repeated claims
that it stands by the Arab people but, at the same time, it provides unlimited weaponry to their oppressors, the authoritarian Arab regimes across the region. This duplicity makes China the second most disliked country in the region after Russia. Its policy is reactive, as in the cases of Libya, Yemen and Egypt, and cautiously proactive and confrontational in the case of Syria, where China seems to have underestimated the reaction of the world towards its lack of support for UN eﬀorts to protect Syrian civilians. In fact, the double vetoes cast by China at the Security Council on 4 February 2012, in solidarity with Russia in support of the Syrian dictator, incited the wrath and resentment of the Arab people. China’s failure to articulate a clear policy towards the ongoing developments
in the Arab world also threatens China’s growing economic and energy interests in the entire Middle East. Suddenly, religious edicts are issued by Muslim clergy to boycott China’s products and to protest about its policies worldwide.
The Arab Spring is a term widely used in the media and literature to refer to the revolutionary Arab momentum that gathered strength towards the end of 2010 and continues today. It accomplished major gains by toppling some
dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. The peak of the Arab Spring was the demise of the Mubarak regime in Egypt on 11 February 2011, 18 days after massive demonstrations erupted in the country. After decades, if not centuries, of systematic humiliation, the Arab people demanded freedom and justice. The conditions that brought about the revolutionary momentum were similar to revolutions throughout history in Russia, China and elsewhere: a sense of humiliation and loss of dignity, corruption, repression, high unemployment rates, inﬂated prices of basic commodities, the spread of poverty, concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, cronyism and nepotism. The stacking of these conditions motivated younger generations to revolt but, unlike previous revolutions, the success of the uprising was mostly due to the quick, systemic organization of supporters accomplished only through eﬀective current social networks. The spark that ignited the Arab Spring came when Mohammed Bouazizi, a
fruit vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia, set himself ablaze on 17 December 2010. Bouazizi’s story expresses the abuse by security agencies of the Tunisian people, similar in many ways to widespread abuse across the Arab world. On the day of his immolation, Bouazizi prepared himself as usual before dawn and headed to the market pushing his fruit cart. Two police oﬃcers, including Fedya Hamdi, a female oﬃcer, stopped him, harassed him and began to help themselves to fruit from his cart. Bouazizi’s story was widely reported, and neatly narrated by the Washington Post reporter Marc Fischer. According to Fischer, police forces were notorious for ‘taking bagfuls of fruit without so much as a nod toward payment. The cops took visible pleasure in subjecting the vendors to one indignity after another – ﬁning them, conﬁscating their scales, even ordering them to carry their stolen fruit to the cops’ cars.’1 Seeing his nephew in trouble from this harassment, his uncle spoke to the town’s chief of police and asked him to intervene. In turn, the chief called the oﬃcers and ordered them to stop but, although they obeyed orders momentarily, they later came back to the market to punish the young man. Outraged by her chief ’s reprimand, Hamdi became violent with Bouazizi. She grabbed baskets of his apples and put them in the police car. Bouazizi tried to stop her but she pushed him and he fell to the ground. When he stood up, Hamdi slapped Bouazizi in the face in front of dozens of eyewitnesses and spat at him while he, angered and outraged, resisted and ﬁnally wept in front of over ﬁfty vendors, mostly men. It was reported that he said in protest: ‘Why are you doing this to me? I’m a simple person, and I just want to work.’2 His humiliation by the female oﬃcer was beyond tolerance. In Arab-Islamic culture, honour, dignity and pride reside in one’s face, and
violating the sanctity of these three principles is beyond anyone’s tolerance. If being slapped is already one of the worst humiliations, for this to be done by a woman is even more insulting to a man’s dignity and manhood. Bouazizi went to the City Hall to complain, but was told to leave because no one would talk to him, so he went back to the market and publicly announced that the whole world would soon hear about police abuse of vendors in that