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Ed Driscoll

I Question the Premise

February 22nd, 2013 - 9:42 pm

“Why Wasn’t There a Chinese Spring?”, asks Steve Hess at the Diplomat Website:

It has now been two years since the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, provided the spark that set the Arab world aflame. A wave of protests spread throughout the region in quick succession and led to the overthrow of long ruling autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, and possibly Syria.

The collapse of regimes like Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt, which many considered “an exemplar of…durable authoritarianism” was a salient reminder to many that such revolutions are “inherently unpredictable.” Before long some began to speculate that the protest movements might spread to authoritarian states outside the Arab world, including China. Indeed, the Chinese government was among those that feared the unrest would spread to China because, as one observer noted, China faced the same kind of “social and political tensions caused by rising inequality, injustice, and corruption” that plagued much of the Arab world on the eve of the uprisings.

Alas it was not to be as the Chinese government has proven far more durable than many of its counterparts in the Arab world. This inevitably raises the question of what factors differentiated the Chinese government from its Arab counterparts in places like Egypt?

On Monday, we linked to Michael Totten’s new article on “The Grand Universal Illusion,” and his use of the phrase “Cognitive Egocentrism,” which places the above article into further context:

[Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times] assumes the Chinese government is at least marginally interested in opening and reforming Pyongyang because he, like plenty of Americans—myself included—wish to see reform in non-democratic countries aligned with the United States. He’s projecting our own psychology onto Beijing.

This is what Professor Richard Landes calls cognitive egocentrism. “The act of empathy,” Landes explains, “can often become an act of projecting onto another ‘what I would feel if I were in their shoes,’ rather than an attempt to understand how the person with whom one is empathizing has reacted to their situation, how they read and interpret events.”

People do this sort of thing all the time. We do it to our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. It’s hard not to. We also do it to foreign people, and they do it to us.

Look at the naïve early predictions about the Arab Spring. Cognitive egocentrism explains at least part of it. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was routinely described in the Western press as a party of mainstream religious conservatives who deeply believed in democracy and free markets, as if they were Egypt’s version of the Republicans in the United States. Likewise, the kids in Tahrir Square were seen as Egypt’s Democrats. Both assumptions were outrageously wide of reality.

Considering what the Arab Spring has wrought, wouldn’t a “Chinese Spring” mark a return of that nation back to its hardline totalitarian state? Or as the sign a protestor of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi protestor was photographed carrying in December said:

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