Gordon G. Chang

is the author of The Coming Collapse of China

In his landmark speech this month on Arab discontent, President Obama said authoritarian governments are never truly secure. They may look stable from the outside, but they can never quell the desire of their citizens to be free. As he told us in moving words, "Square by square, town by town, country by country, the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights."

What happens when they do so in China?

Washington, like other capitals, is unprepared for the failure of Beijing's regime, which is viewed in many quarters as an "essential" partner for peace. Yet "fault lines" - Obama's term for the inherent weaknesses of regimes - are visible in China, one of the most volatile societies on earth.

There were more than 230,000 protests in that country in 2009, according to one report, and the number probably went up last year. The Communist Party's massive overreaction to peaceful demonstrations in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities this February indicates a ruling group that is exceedingly insecure.

And there is plenty of reason for the party to be so. Rampant corruption and arbitrary governance have undermined popular support as the economy is beginning to stumble. Slowing growth and accelerating inflation - China's toxic economic brew - are creating discontent, especially among unemployed youths. These days, the highly educated in China are accepting positions as domestic servants, nannies, and collectors of "night soil" - more than 1,100 university graduates in the middle of last year applied for eight jobs cleaning up excrement in prosperous Wenzhou in coastal Zhejiang province.

To borrow a phrase the president used this month, the Chinese state is at a "tipping point." The last thing we should do when China "tips" is try to support the Communist Party.

The administration of George H.W. Bush did precisely that, as Henry Kissinger discusses in his book released this month, On China. The White House, just three weeks after the horrific Tiananmen massacre in 1989, sent National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, the deputy secretary of state, to Beijing to assure Deng Xiaoping of America's long-term support. By doing so, Bush signaled that the international community should help the party maintain power despite the killing of hundreds - perhaps thousands - of Chinese citizens.

Since then, the regime has dashed the hopes of many around the world. China's leaders, unfortunately, have not sought to integrate themselves into the global system. On the contrary, they have consistently worked to undermine it by proliferating nuclear-weapons technology to Iran, claiming vast stretches of international waters and the territories of other nations, supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan, launching daily cyberattacks against government and business networks, maintaining predatory trade practices, backing Pakistan's campaign of terror against India, and bolstering almost every rogue state on the planet.

We should not ride to the rescue of the Communist Party again. Even if we tried to do so, China is too big, too proud, and too independent for outsiders to influence. Beijing's leaders, who think they already own the century, are not taking much advice, and they have already told us that their rough treatment of the Chinese people is none of our business. True, officials participate in human-rights dialogues with the United States and the European Union, but they have gotten only more repressive since 2003.

The crackdown that started in February, meant to prevent Arab Spring-type protests in China, is the most extensive there in 22 years. The government is creating its own enemies and galvanizing existing opposition as it arrests, among others, human-rights lawyers, artists, Christians, and minorities.

The Communist Party has been moving backward while the Chinese people are racing forward. So in China, two giant tectonic plates are moving in opposite directions. As we all know, that eventually creates an earthquake. The long-running argument between the people and their government will break out into the open soon.

Washington's support for unpopular rulers in the past has created problems. Our backing for the shah of Iran, for instance, ended up as a disaster: the Iranian revolution of 1979, an event still plaguing the United States and the international community. Then there are the awkward situations, such as those resulting from decades of assisting Hosni Mubarak. It was this support for the Egyptian autocrat and his fellow Arab rulers that prompted Obama to try to reset relations with his speech this month.

The West's foreign-policy establishments have gotten too comfortable dealing with their polished Chinese counterparts, so there is a risk we will again try to support the Communist Party. Yet when the people of China rise up, as they inevitably will, we do not want to find ourselves on the wrong side.

Iran is small. China is not. The consequences of backing the regime against its people in the next Chinese upheaval would be much worse, a mistake of historic proportions.

E-mail Gordon G. Chang at gchang@gordonchang.com.