China was caught off guard by the Arab revolutions. Its first response in Libya was to go along with international sanctions against Gaddafi for abuses on his people while undertaking its largest evacuation mission of Chinese citizens. It then changed tack and verbally opposed international military action. The protection of citizens abroad didn’t extend internally in China, where a crackdown was carried out in response to minor breezes of the Jasmine Spring.
This zigzagging response to the crisis points to the new pressures that Beijing is under, from growing international interests, pressuring traditional non-interference principles abroad, to a population that is also increasingly connected to events across the globe.
A new policy memo published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, ‘China’s Janus-faced response to the Arab revolution’, explores these arguments. The authors, Jonas Parello-Plesner andRaffaello Pantucci, argue that:
China has now laid down a ‘responsibility to protect’ its own citizens abroad. China’s international interests (it had an estimated 38,000 nationals in Libya, along with contracts worth $18.8 billion) mean it can no longer remain aloof from developments like the Arab revolutions.
Beijing’s behaviour is increasingly influenced by relationships with other nations, for instance South-South cooperation. Its initial support for sanctions in Libya was influenced by the stance of Arab nations and the Arab League.
- Beijing’s domestic crackdown, including the arrest of artist Ai Weiwei, demonstrate the authorities’ concerns about increasing connections to the outside world and the internal development of a bustling public sphere with more than 400 million internet users and where microblogs are used to dodge censorship and expose official corruption.