(Protest at Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 2011 – Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On September 17th 2013, the United Nations Security Council began negotiating a draft resolution on Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. China, one of the Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members, has yet to condemn President Bashar al-Assad for the alleged chemical weapon attacks on Ghouta residents in the outskirts of Damascus, in the early morning of August 21st. However, faced with strong condemnation from the broader international community, it is highly unlikely China will stand alongside Assad, Iran and Russia in accusing the opposition force, the Free Syrian Army, for this attack. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that China would still object to or even veto a binding resolution that authorizes military intervention if Assad were to fail to hand over all chemical weapons to the UN for destruction.
Preliminary U.S. intelligence claimed 1,429 people had been killed in the August 21st attack by Assad’s government forces, including over 400 children. The New York Times, reviewing the forensic evidence from a UN report delivered on September 16th, one day before the start of new wave discussion in the Security Council, indicated that warheads equipped with the nerve agent sarin were fired from Mount Qasioun. Mount Qasioun overlooks Assad’s president palace, which is protected by his Republican Guard and the army’s powerful Fourth Division, headed by his brother and inner circle.
In the past China has been inclined to abstain from votes on sanctions, condemnations and interventions drafted by the three Western permanent members of the Security Council – France, the UK and the USA – particularly on issues that do not directly involve China’s own interests. However, on the issue of Syria, the PRC, along with Russia, has maintained a firm stance against any potential international intervention into what is widely viewed as the worst crisis in the 21st century. According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, over 4.5 million people have been internally displaced, with a further 2 million having fled as refugees to neighboring countries, notably Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. In June, the UN reported a minimum of almost 93,000 people dead, and noted that the real death toll was likely to be over 100,000. With the political consequences of supporting Assad potentially beginning to outweigh other considerations, then, how do we understand China’s opposition to intervention? To read through this, we need to look back at the 2011 pan-Arab democratic movement, the Arab Spring.
Willy Wo-lap Lam, a prominent Hong Kong-based China watcher, told CNN in an interview on the Syria issue that China has long had a record of supporting one-party dictatorships and military juntas in the Middle East and Africa. It is fair to say that as the biggest communist country and authoritarian regime in the world, Beijing often tends to be sympathetic towards similar polities. Xi Jinping and his communist cadres understand well that free people are less likely to choose leaders who pursue good relations with dictators; similarly, autocrats who are not accountable to the public or elected representatives are much easier to pay off using the huge foreign currency reserves that China has accumulated through its export-dependent economy. When a popular movement suddenly erupted in the Egyptian streets in January 2011, the Chinese media was told to disregard the Egyptian people’s quest for political freedom and fundamental human rights and to instead focus on clashes between protesters and security forces. The main aim of this was to create an image of an unstable Egypt to the Chinese public, in order to uphold the Chinese Communist Party’s long standing stability maintenance policy, and to create a public perception that controlled stability is better than democratic transition.
The same biased coverage happened late the same year on the Libya crisis, when instead of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s executions and brutalities, NATO intervention and battlefields were pictured and broadcasted. This was the case to such an extent that Al Jazeera’s Beijing bureau chief felt compelled to protest that the Arab Spring was a popular movement by the people of the Middle East for political freedom, open society, and long waited reconciliation amongst different religious groups and factions.
This year, trouble in Egypt flared up again, when on August 14th the BBC reported that over 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed following the ousting of the elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July. Again, Chinese TV and newspaper coverage mostly portrayed the turmoil and bloodshed, with little analysis in state media on how the situation itself had arisen. There were few interviews with different Egyptian political groups, media representatives, academics, citizens and international stakeholders. This once again prevented the Chinese public from evaluating the best way to organize government. With scenes of violence showed over and over again in China, some people might really have believed that keeping the Communist Party perpetually in power was the best option.
In countries like Syria, the Arab Spring has now turned into a winter, as the government crackdown has deteriorated into a civil war. However, in other places like Egypt, there has been an overwhelming military comeback, with much bloodshed. It is indubitable that these last two years of military back and forth have lessened the fear of protest for many Muslim people. This has had wide repercussions; in China, a similar, Arab Spring style popular movement has been advocated for by activists. It is fear of its own people which has made the PRC use its position on the Security Council to block the chance of reigniting 2011’s democratic pursuits in Syria.