Let me put on my contemporary Chinese politics cap for a moment to comment on the horrible events unfolding in Cairo. I notice, on Twitter, that comparisons are already being drawn between the violent crackdown on Egypt and the Beijing Massacre of 1989. For example:
Number of people killed in Tiananmen Square: ~300 // Number of people killed yesterday in Egypt: 525.
— Anup Kaphle (@AnupKaphle) August 15, 2013
This creates both a false sense of accuracy and a false equivalence. The inaccuracy lies in the estimate for deaths in Beijing in 1989. Quite simply, we do not know how many people died in Beijing on June 3-4, 1989. We do know that most of the people who died then were killed by PLA soldiers west of Tiananmen Square, especially around Muxidi. Thus, it is best to call this the "Beijing Massacre," not the "Tiananmen Massacre." Although contemporaneous diplomatic reports at that time suggested a civilian death toll of 180-500, the staunch repression by the CCP in the PRC of open discussion of the entire 1989 protest movement makes it impossible to know for sure how many innocent people perished. It may be that the current violence in Cairo is approaching Beijing 1989 levels, but, in truth, we cannot know because the CCP will not let us know.
But there is a larger false equivalence here, and that is simply that Egypt in 2013 is very, very different politically than China 1989.
To begin, Egypt now is much more politically mobilized than was China then. The 1989 protests in the PRC, although they spread to many cities throughout the country (Nanjing included!), lasted only about eight weeks, from April 15th, when the death of Hu Yaobang was announced, to June 4th, or a few days after in some other places, like Nanjing. Compare this to Egypt, which has been roiled by not only large scale protests for over two years, but also actual regime change. This is a much more fluid and fraught political context than China in 1989.
Institutionally, the two places are vastly different. Civil society in China is nowhere near as organized as in Egypt; there is nothing like the Muslim Brotherhood, which was able to maintain a strong political network through years of repression and then rise during the breakdown of the Mubarak regime to become an electoral force, only to, again, be violently repressed. The CCP is much more effectlively proactive when in comes to keeping dissidents from developing significant organizational networks. Conversely, there is nothing like the CCP in Egypt. Mubarak obviously relied on the military for support, as does the CCP, but he had nowhere near the political structure that the Communist Party gives to China's leaders. And Egypt now is institutionally disintegrating before our very eyes. The earlier regime change opened the political system to much more participation and mobilization than the institutional capacities of the state could handle (for those keeping track at home, yes, I am lapsing into some old school Samuel Huntington speak here... and here's Fukuyama applying Huntington to Egypt in 2011... )
The PRC state is much more powerfully institutionalized than Egypt's ever was. Thus, when the CCP called out the army there in 1989, it was an example of a very firmly rooted regime employing a small fraction of its well organized repressive capacity to put down a limited protest that did not fundamentally threaten the bases of state power. In contrast, in Egypt we have what seems to be an implosion of centralized state power, with the removal of one ruling political organization but not yet the consolidation of a new regime. The Egyptian military is lashing out against the previous power-holders as legitimate authority dissolves in street fights.
So, let's be careful with the comparisons (even if only in headlines). Egypt and China are two very different places. Nor should we rush to conclusions about what the violence in Cairo might mean for political change in other parts of the world. Transitions from authoritarianism are often unstable and they sometimes fail. There is nothing inevitable in processes of political transformation: they are driven by actors responding to particular immediate circumstances with varying strategic calculations. Thus, violence in Cairo today does not mean that political change in China is unwise or impossible. There are all sorts of political reforms that the CCP could initiate - living up to the existing state constitution being perhaps the most readily available - that need not bring an explosion of instability. Quite to the contrary, if the CCP continues to resist poltical change, it may face its own crisis in the future. If Egypt's problem is that it has changed too quickly, the PRC's may be that it is not changing, politically, at all.