China’s Response to the Arab Spring

Mehri Annayeva*

POMEAS OP-ED, 10 July 2015

China with its fastest growing economy and active diplomacy has a significant role in the international arena. In the future, China has a potential to become a strong global power and pose a serious threat to the US hegemony. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) the US authority has already been in decline after it has carried out multiple military interventions.

Unlike US, China used more cooperative approach in order to strengthen its economic ties and to have access to MENA’s energy resources.1 In past decade, China has made huge investments in oil exploration and construction projects across the entire region. Therefore, political and economic stability of the region has been China’s highest priority.

Unfortunately, the stability of the MENA region has been weakened by the pro-democracy wave of violent civil uprisings that are known as “Arab Uprisings” or “Arab Spring”, which started in 2011. The protests took place in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Similar civil uprisings took place in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, and Sudan. The main causes of the uprisings derived from the factors such as dictatorship, repression, corruption, unemployment, and social inequalities.2

The outbreak of the Arab Uprisings has put China’s economic interests at a high risk. The Chinese citizens who were working in the Middle East were in danger as well. Therefore, China proactively reacted to the events and organized a Naval Task Force to evacuate the Chinese workers from the projects. It was an unprecedented case, because it was the first time when China organized the largest evacuation of Chinese overseas workers since 1949.3 Around 35 860 Chinese nationals were evacuated from Libya alone.4 The Chinese government organized additional flights, cruise liners and cargo ships to evacuate as much people as possible.

After an emergency evacuations have been completed, China took “wait and see” policy, which aligns with China’s traditional non-interference approach.5 However, as a member of the UN Security Council, China played an important role during the voting for UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which formed legal basis for the humanitarian intervention into Libya. Surprisingly, China and Russia abstained from voting, which allowed NATO forces to carry out the military intervention.6 Later, both China and Russia highly criticized the actions of NATO forces for exceeding the Security Council mandate. They argued that NATO’s intervention exacerbated the Libyan Crisis even further.7

The intervention of NATO into Libya resulted in death of the President Muammar Gaddafi and the National Transitional Council (NTC) took over the government. China hesitated to recognize the NTC as a legitimate government of Libya. However, later when NTC was able to sustain itself, then China made a decision to recognize NTC as a governing body of Libya.8 After the Libyan case, China started to be more cautious about its decisions at the UN Security Council. Consequently, the international community’s response to the Arab Uprisings diverged depending on the geostrategic interests of the global powers.

The instability in the MENA region created a space for the insurgency groups and terrorist organizations. The governments were unable to control the growth and influence of those groups. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a direct consequence of the Arab Uprisings. The rapid expansion of the group started to pose a threat not only to its country of origin but also to other countries with Muslim population. Therefore China shifted its non-interference approach and offered help to Iraq in its fight against ISIS.9 However, China refused to join the US-led coalition of airstrikes and offered to provide help separately. China’s support to Iraq can be explained by two important factors: 1. Economic Interests, and 2. Muslim insurgency in the Xinjiang region.

In order to gain a financial strength ISIS has been capturing oil fields in Iraq. Since China is one of the main investors in Iraq’s Oil Industry, it was highly concerned about the investment losses.10 Similarly, Chinese companies were present in the Syrian oilfields. However, with the rapid expansion of ISIS in Syria, the main China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) had to stop its work and leave war-torn Syria in 2013.11

The Uyghur Muslim minorities from Xinjiang province have been fighting for independence for many decades in China. They have accused the Chinese government for limiting their religious and cultural freedom. Uyghurs had a significant role in Silk Road trade and were cultural ambassadors between East and West. The population of the province consists of twenty million. The structural violence towards Uyghur people in Xinjiang province is evident. Uyghur people face economic marginalization and limited opportunities in practicing their cultural and religious traditions. The Chinese government’s internal migration policy of Han Chinese to Xinjiang province has been aimed at assimilating the Uyghur population into Chinese culture. However, it had an opposite effect. Daily structural violence amplified the aggressiveness and frustration of Uyghur people. Mostly, Uyghur resistance took a form of religious extremism. Many Uyghurs were caught in Afghanistan and Pakistan where they joined extremists groups and tried to organize attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of China. Consequently, the spread of ISIS ideology in Xinjiang province increased the extremist rhetoric. Therefore, Chinese government is concerned that many individuals from the Xinjiang province started to join ISIS.12 Some fighters even returning back from Syria to Xinjiang to recruit more individuals and spread the ISIS ideology in the region.13 The ISIS’s manipulation of Muslim grievances was an effective strategy to recruit foreign fighters from all over the globe.

ISIS set a precedent by using violent strategies and governing a territory in a state-like manner. Therefore, China perceived its national security to be at stake. However, at the same time, it is important to underline that China might have a tendency to exaggerate some facts in order to justify further repressions over the Uyghurs living in Xinjiang province.14

The Syrian Crisis has certainly divided global powers. Western powers took an interventionist approach, while China and Russia opposed to any attempt to intervention into Syria.15 United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Portugal proposed the first draft resolution to intervene into Syria. However, China and Russia vetoed the resolution. In total, China and Russia vetoed six resolutions on Syria at UN Security Council. China’s behavior at the UN Security Council openly demonstrates the support for current Syrian regime.

In addition, it is important to emphasize that China proposed a Peace Plan to resolve the Syrian conflict. The plan suggested an immediate cease-fire and a political transition through non-violent means.16 However, the plan did not indicate the role and status of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.17 The status of the Bashar Al-Assad plays a significant role in the potential resolution process of the Syrian Crisis. The exclusion of Assad’s role from the Peace Plan has been criticized for being weak and vague.

Moreover, China together with Russia and Iran agreed to provide a financial support to Syria in order to recover from the civil war. United Nations estimated that civil war destruction in Syria worth approximately 42 billion USD.18 Offering help before the war has ended signifies that China supports Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and his supporters. When big countries such as China, Russia and Iran unite to support current Syrian regime, then Saudi Arabia, Turkey, EU and US might have to accept the Assad’s regime in order to start an effective conflict resolution process.

The events of the Arab Uprisings not only impacted China’s foreign policy but also it had an effect on domestic policies. The wave of the turbulences that started in the Middle East reached China almost immediately. However, strict Communist regime was able to stop the protests from spreading further. In February 2011, protests sparked in major cities of China with demands for freedom of press, and political/social reforms. These protests were called “Chinese Jasmine Revolution” because demonstrations took place shortly after the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Hence, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia inspired the Chinese people to take action against the strict Communist regime. The Jasmine flower became a symbol of the protests. The Chinese government took serious measures to stop the protesters and prevent them from gathering further. Government police arrested activists, blocked social media websites, and ordered armed forces to stand on the streets and take necessary actions if protesters ignore the instructions of the police.19 In addition, the Chinese government blocked certain words such as “Jasmine”, “Egypt”, and “Arab Spring” on the internet search engines.20

The pro-democracy protests in big cities of China intensified the grievances in Taiwan as well. The supporters of Taiwanese Independence gathered to voice their dissatisfaction with the Chinese policies. Moreover, the situation started to be tense in the regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia where ethnic minorities live.

Later in September 2014, massive protests sparked in Hong Kong after Chinese government announced that candidates who will be running in Elections 2017 will need to have a majority support from a Nomination Committee.21 Protesters were unsatisfied with China’s attempt to control the elections through the nomination process of the candidates. Demonstrations were held in front of the government buildings and continued for several days. Police used excessive force such as teargas and pepper spray to disperse the massive gatherings.22 Demonstrators used umbrellas to protect themselves from the teargas and pepper sprays. Therefore, the protests in Hong Kong were named an “Umbrella Revolution”.23

The domestic situation in China is tense, however radical changes are doubtful. The Communist regime tries to keep the protesters under control. However, if China does not make efforts to improve the social and economic conditions of the people, then protests might spark more often and eventually lead to greater violence. Similarly, if China and other strong powers will not put efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict, then there will be no peace in the Middle East in the near future.


1  James Dorsey, “China and the Middle East: Embarking on a Strategic Approach”, The Huffington Post, September 16, 2014.

2  Stephan Rosiny (2012) The Arab Spring: Triggers, Dynamics and Prospects. German Institute for Global and Area Studies. 2-7

3  “China Investments Halt in Libya After Cos Suffer Losses”, Business Standard News, March 22, 2011.

4  “Hundreds of Chinese Workers are Evacuated from Libya”, BBC News, August 7, 2014

5  Ramon Pacheco Pardo, “The Dragon Eyes the Arab Spring”, The Majalla, April 14, 2011

6  Shirin Tahir Kheli, “The Lopsided UN Security Council Vote on Libya”, The Daily Beast, March 19, 2011

7  Patrick Goodenough, “Russia, China Accuse West of Exceeding UN Resolution, Making the Libyan Crisis Worse”, CNS News, March 29, 2011.

8  Sophie Beach, “China Recognizes Libya’s NTC as Ruling Authority; Moves Away From Policy of Strict Non-Interference”, China Digital Times, September 12, 2011.

9  Reissa Su, “ISIS War: China Offers Military Support to Iraq but Declines Joining US-led Coalition”, International Business Times, December 16, 2014.

10  Dexter Roberts, “Iraq Crisis Threatens Chinese Oil Investments”, Bloomberg Business, June 17, 2014

11 Aibing Guo, “China Oil Companies Suffer Reversals in the Middle East”, Bloomberg Business, November 11, 2014.

12  Heather Saul, “Chinese Uyghur’s Join ISIS Overseas and Return to Take Part in Terror Plots”, The Independent, March 11, 2015.

13  Jack Moore, “Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims Receiving ‘Terrorist Training’ From ISIS Fighters For Attacks in China”, International Business Times, September 22, 2014.

14  Guy Taylor, “China Warns that Uyghur Joining Islamic State Fight are Bringing Terror Home”, The Washington Times, March 10, 2015.

15  “France, UK Pressure Syria Through UN Security Council”, Russia Today News, June 8, 2011.

16  “China’s Peace Plan for Syria”, Voice of America, March 6, 2012.

17  Neil MacFarQuhar, “China Presents a Four-Point Proposal for Resolving the Civil War in Syria”, The New York Times, November 1, 2012.

18  Scott Lucas, “Assad Regime – We Have 130 Million to Rebuild the Country”, EA Worldview, December 29, 2014.

19  Damian Grammaticas, “Call for Protests in China Met with Brutality”, BBC News, February 28, 2011.

20  Jaime Florcruz, “Jasmine Protests in China Fall Flat”, CNN News, February 21, 2011.

21  Kelvin Chan, “Umbrella Revolution Protests Spread in Hong Kong”, The Huffington Post, September 29, 2014.

22  Austin Ramzy and Alan Wong, “Hong Kong Protesters Defy Officials Call to Disperse”, The New York Times, September 29, 2014.

23  John Henley, “How the Umbrella Became the Symbol of the Hong Kong Democracy Protests”, The Guardian, September 29, 2014.

*POMEAS Research Assistant