What does the unrest in the Middle East tell us about China?

What does the unrest in the Middle East tell us about China?

Isn’t this the era of the "Rise of the Rest," isn’t the unipolar moment over yet again? Isn’t China already a global leader, pushing for what it wants internationally? Alas, despite all the predictions about the new international politics, the world is waiting to see what Washington will do. When it comes to the biggest issue of the day — the revolt of Middle East publics against their leaders — China has nothing to say. To the contrary: Rather than show any leadership at all, China has run home and hidden under a very large stone (or behind a Great Wall and Firewall).

The expectation that a Chinese regime scared of its own shadow would ever take a leadership position on a matter of high diplomacy — especially regarding political transitions — was always far-fetched. Beijing is terrified of its own upcoming authoritarian transition in 2012. True, China’s successions have gone off relatively smoothly in the past, but that does not mean future successions, cloaked in secrecy, will be trouble-free. So much can go wrong: a last minute challenge, a call by reformers for more openness in succession decisions, and so on. Even one mistake by China’s leaders can set off leadership splits and spark protests that would make Egypt’s transition appear relatively manageable.

As in the Middle East, if (when?) there is a leadership crisis in China, Washington will look back on the last thirty years and wish it had done more to push for evolutionary changes in China – among these, the creation of a real civil society independent of the Party and outreach to groups in China outside the Party. If China were to face an internal crisis, Washington would not have a clue with whom to speak.

The unrest in the Middle East reveals, then, two important facts about China. First, talk of its impending global leadership is greatly exaggerated. Second, we should adequately prepare for China’s day of reckoning as well. A tired United States may wish someone else would help manage the global order; wishing is not going to make it happen.