Posted : 2011-02-16 16:21
Updated : 2011-02-16 16:21

Pyongyang, Beijing wary of change in Egypt

Michael Rubin
By Kang Hyun-kyung

The ousting of Hosni Mubarak last week after his 30-year rule of Egypt, following the same fate of his Tunisian counterpart the previous month, has alarmed the leaders of China and North Korea.

In their editorials, the state-run, mouthpiece media of the two nations have downplayed the impact of the regime change in Egypt.

There was an identifiable difference in the negative reactions to the Egyptian unrest between the Chinese and North Korean outlets. Chinese media expressed direct and straightforward skepticism, whereas the North’s response was indirect criticism of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom
The North Korean media has not mentioned Egypt, but reading between the lines it is clear they are referring to the Egyptian uprising.

Michael Rubin, resident fellow of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), indicated that the difference probably reflects that compared with China, the North is relatively safe from the impact of the unrest sweeping the Arab world.

“I don’t think this unrest will spread to North Korea. Kim Jong-il and (his third son and heir-apparent) Jong-un hardly care for ordinary people, nor do North Koreans have the ability to mobilize independently,” Rubin told The Korea Times.

Many North Korea watchers here also concurred with the view that the popular protests in the Arab world, which were fanned by social media, would unlikely affect Pyongyang as most residents do not have access to the Internet.

Rubin pointed his finger at China as the nation that could be most affected by the unrest in the Arab world.

“China should be very worried. The wealth discrepancy is huge between the coastal cities and the inland villages. Inflation is gaining steam.”

His remarks came against the backdrop of the economic roots of the Egyptian unrest, including deep income disparity and high unemployment among young people.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, observed the Chinese authorities were well aware of the dynamism of popular protests from their own history: the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“In the 1989 protests that were crushed by the army, inflation and anger over corruption were important factors in getting students and others out onto the streets,” the professor said in an email interview with The Korea Times.

Wasserstrom, the author of the book “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010),” noted the urban protests of the mid-to-late 1940s would be an even better parallel in Chinese history.

The uprising came against the backdrop of spiraling inflation and castigated then leader Chiang Kai-shek for not only heading a corrupt and authoritarian government, but also one that was too beholden to the Americans, the historian said.

“China’s current leaders know the history of those anti-Chiang Kai-shek protests involving educated youths very well, as along with pitched battles in the countryside they helped to pave the way for the Chinese Communist Party’s rise to national power in 1949.”

In the wake of the Egyptian uprising in January, the Chinese authorities censored the Internet. Two of the biggest Chinese portals, and, blocked keyword searches of the word Egypt.

The censorship was followed by cynical editorials published by the Global Times, which is seen as being a mouthpiece for the Chinese authorities.

In an editorial titled “Egypt Has Won a Battle but Not the War” published on Feb. 14, the paper wrote that the regime change may bring progress for Egyptian society, though there is also worry over the prospects for the country and the entire world.

“Egypt’s middle-class is weak, bureaucracy and corruption are prevalent and the income gap between the rich and the poor is huge. These problems cannot be solved by democracy itself.”

While the unmistakable downplay regarding the outcome of the uprising was featured in the Chinese media, North Korean media outlets covered the unrest in an indirect manner.

On Monday, an unnamed political commentator of a Pyongyang radio broadcast was quoted as saying that although the young people in Eastern Europe succeeded in toppling the socialist regimes back in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they are now living in a corrupt and sick capitalist culture.

“The pro-democracy protests in Eastern Europe have led to the destruction of what their predecessors had achieved during the socialist regime,” he said.

Another state-run radio broadcast reported that transitional economies that embraced western democracy and multi-party systems are being plagued with political instability and unrest of late.
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