Could Mideast revolutions spread to China?
Friday, Feb. 25, 2011
As the lunar calendar ushered in the Year of the Rabbit, a cartoon video briefly ricocheted around the Chinese Internet. In the opening scene, a small village of rabbits is living happily when a truck selling Three Tiger baby milk pulls up and drops off bottles for all the little bunnies.
But the milk is poisonous – it makes the baby rabbits’ heads explode – and soon one mother rabbit is running down to complain at the cave of the tigers (the outgoing lunar year) that rule over them. When she gets inside, the red banner hanging on the cave wall is familiar to anyone who lives in China. “Build a harmonious forest,” it reads, in a clear reference to President Hu Jintao’s oft-stated goal of establishing a “harmonious society.”
But the tigers have no sympathy for what the rabbits are going through, mocking and beating them. Soon, the tigers are evicting the rabbits from their homes in the village and demolishing houses to make way for new developments.
Eventually, the rabbits decide that they have had enough and turn on the tigers, tearing them to bloody shreds with newly grown fangs. As the music rises from a lullaby to a heavy-metal climax, the screen is filled with a warning: “The Year of the Rabbit has come. Even rabbits bite when they’re pushed.”
Though the creator maintained that his video was simply an “adult fairy tale,” the parallels to real life in China were all too obvious. Predictably, all links to the video were blocked within hours of its original appearance.
Is this the year the Chinese people rise up for the first time since 1989, when pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed by tanks on Tiananmen Square? Could the wave of popular protests that began in Tunis and swept through Cairo eventually reach Beijing? Could fast-rising food costs and the leaping price of oil bring an end to the unspoken pact – economic growth in exchange for stability – between the ruling Communist Party and China’s 1.3 billion citizens?
There are unusual stirrings. Last week, a mysterious online call went out for protesters to launch a Jasmine Revolution in China. Though that effort failed – police far outnumbered the tiny group of people who assembled at the awkward rallying point of a McDonald’s in central Beijing – another call has gone out for protesters to gather on Sunday in Beijing and 22 other cities.
“We do not support violent revolution; we continue to support non-violent non-co-operation. We invite every participant to stroll, watch or even just pretend to pass by. As long as you are present, the authoritarian government will be shaking with fear,” the call to protest reads.
Though last weekend’s gathering was considered a flop, the overreaction by the police – arresting dozens of key dissidents (some of whom had no idea about the online call to protest), deploying hundreds of police and threatening anyone who reposts the protest call with subversion charges – reveals how badly the Communist Party has been rattled by the string of revolts that has already brought down two authoritarian regimes and put others under threat in the Arab world and beyond.
The Chinese government sees the unrest in the Middle East as part of a longer string of popular uprisings that swept aside autocrats in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past decade. The state media regularly assert that all the revolts are American-backed, the people on the streets in each country duped into advancing U.S. interests. Beijing, they’re clearly worried, could be the next target.
Bread not protests
I’ve seen a few revolutions up close. I was standing on the streets of Tbilisi in 2003 when the Rose Revolution ousted Eduard Shevardnadze from office in Georgia, and in snowy Kiev a year later when Ukraine had its Orange Revolution. I began to feel as though the “colour revolutions” were following me around when Lebanon’s short-lived Cedar Revolution erupted in 2005 while my wife and I were taking Arabic lessons in Beirut.
The main reasons the crowds aren’t yet calling for the ouster of Mr. Hu and the Politburo are simple: While Georgians and Ukrainians were tired of post-Soviet stagnation, and the Middle East’s uprisings have been driven in large part by jobless youth, China’s economy continues to grow at an impressive pace. The population here is much older than in the angry young societies of the Middle East, and after decades of turmoil, many Chinese are experiencing stability and a little prosperity for the first time. Revolutions don’t happen when people believe their lives are getting better.
That’s not the whole story, of course. The impressive macroeconomic figures hide the fact that many of China’s poor – while undeniably better off than they were two decades ago – have nonetheless found it impossible to climb the social ladder. In fact, the gap between China’s increasingly modern cities and a countryside that in some places hasn’t changed much since the 19th century is widening by the year.
The Global Times newspaper, which is run by the Communist Party, reported that the country’s Gini co-efficient (a measure of income inequality) passed the “warning line” of 0.4 a decade ago and is now nearing 0.5, a level substantially worse than in either Egypt or Tunisia.
Social injustice is also as big an issue here as in the Arab world, as evidenced by the cartoon parable of the rabbits and the tigers, and the quick move by the authorities to censor the video and its references to tainted baby milk scandals, forced home demolitions and other sources of popular anger.
In 2005, there were 87,000 “mass incidents” – Chinese bureaucratese for a public protest or strike – around the country. Since then, the government has either stopped counting or stopped publishing the figure, almost definitely the latter. The number itself was likely seen as potentially inflammatory.
And that’s the other reason Hu Jintao’s China isn’t Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. While Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was corrupt, decaying and out of touch with the country’s angry young population, the Communist Party of China is constantly analyzing threats, real and imagined, to its own rule and fine-tuning its response.
Gene Sharp, the American academic who devised a how-to handbook for non-violent revolutions that has now been used to bring down an impressive list of autocrats and dictators (from Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 to Mr. Mubarak), wrote that a key to shattering an authoritarian regime is to pick away at what he called its “pillars of support,” including the bureaucracy, the media and the security services.
When I visited Egypt five years ago (and wrote an overly optimistic report about the revolution I thought was imminent then), I could see that the pillars were already crumbling. Large segments of the judiciary, the press and the public were in open rebellion against the regime, though Mr. Mubarak and his party seemed blind to the danger this might cause them. The same could be said for many of the regimes now under threat across the Arab world.
The Mubarak regime’s failure to anticipate new threats left it entirely reliant on its security services. And while the police proved loyal, the army quickly read the way the wind was blowing and stood aside to allow the anti-Mubarak protests to continue.
The leaders of the Communist Party of China, conversely, still have their hands firmly on all key levers of power. Though the party makes a show out of holding some village-level votes, an opposition movement such as Mr. Nour’s Al-Ghad party has never been allowed to form, and nothing resembling a national election has ever been held.
Egypt’s protests were called leaderless, but in fact many established opposition groups took part, even if they still don’t agree on what should come next. In China, there’s hardly an opposition to speak of, only a clutch of brave dissidents, many of whom spend their time moving between prison and other forms of “administrative detention.”
China’s media are more open than ever before, with some outlets constantly pushing at the boundaries of what can be said, but on sensitive matters even the most rebellious editor knows she must toe the party line or risk being shut down. The instructions from above on how to cover the unrest in the Middle East, for instance, couldn’t have been clearer: “For the disturbances in Egypt, media across the nation must use copy circulated from Xinhua [the official government news agency]. Websites are to strengthen [monitoring] of posts, forums, blogs, and particularly posts on microblogs. Our bureaus will forcibly shut down websites that are lax in monitoring,” read a directive from the State Council Information Office that was obtained by the China Digital Times, a website run by faculty and students at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley.
The Great Firewall
China’s rulers also have a much better grasp of the potential dangers posed by “new media” – particularly Twitter-style microblogging and social-networking sites – than did the creaky regimes of the Middle East. The call for a protest on Wangfujing Street last weekend used the hashtag #cn220 on Twitter, a website blocked inside China, but still accessible to those computer-savvy enough to scale what is known as the Great Firewall. The heavy police presence (compared with the paltry number of demonstrators) in front of the McDonald’s – and the speed with which they dispersed the small “Jasmine” gathering – revealed that Chinese security was paying at least as much attention to social media as the pro-democracy movement was.
“These social-networking sites have become a tool of political subversion used by Western nations, including the United States,” read a report on new media that was released last year by the state-run China Academy of Social Sciences. Another blocked website, Facebook, was singled out for having played a role in the deadly riots that hit the largely Muslim region of Xinjiang in 2009. “Faced with the popularity of social networking sites … it is imperative to exert control.”
Rather than shutting down the Internet altogether, as first Mr. Mubarak and now Moammar Gadhafi resorted to, only to provoke more popular anger, China’s leaders have taken a more sophisticated approach in dealing with its online population of 450 million.
Few here bemoan the loss of Facebook and Twitter because Chinese rivals – ones willing to work with the government – have been nurtured in their place. When the initial call to protest was issued last Saturday, Chinese bloggers reported that posts with the words “jasmine” or “tomorrow” were blocked on Renren.com and Sina.com, China’s most popular social-networking sites. On Sunday, when protesters were supposed to head to the McDonald’s in central Beijing, the word “today” was added to the list of sensitive terms.
On Friday, the LinkedIn professional networking site appeared to join the list of blocked Web pages after at least one user posted about the possibility of China having a revolution akin to Egypt’s. Searches for the name “Jon Huntsman,” the U.S. ambassador here, were also blocked after he caused a commotion by briefly appearing at last Sunday’s demonstrations.
Signs of strength or weakness?
While these extreme measures could be interpreted as signs of weakness and insecurity on the part of the Communist Party, they were also a show of strength, a police state still at the top of its game. By Friday – 48 hours before the second “Jasmine protests” – the street in front of the McDonald’s on the Wangfujing pedestrian mall had been conveniently turned into a construction site.
“Their push for a ‘revolution’ will falter, as the public is opposed to it. That authorities are taking a strong line against these people is supported both by law and public opinion,” read an editorial this week in the Global Times.
The crackdown was expanded to include foreign journalists, several of whom (including The Globe and Mail) were called and warned to “respect the laws of China” during the coming days.
One theory about the initial “Jasmine” gathering in Beijing last weekend is that it wasn’t a real effort at revolution, but a test run to see how the security apparatus would respond to a small-scale action modelled on the Middle East. Sunday’s protests in 23 cities around the country, if they happen, will be a bigger test.
Wang Dan, one of the key leaders of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, has been one of the few to publicly attach his name to the Jasmine protests, promoting them from exile via his Facebook page. In an e-mail interview, he said it was impossible to predict if and when Chinese would decide to take to the streets against their government but “if the inflation situation gets worse, there must be social disorder.” Food prices in China rose 10.3 per cent in January, and that was before the unrest in the Middle East pushed oil past $110 a barrel.
While the cost of a bowl of noodles is the subject of much grumbling among ordinary Chinese, few observers expect the crowds Sunday to be much bigger than the 200 or so who briefly gathered in the centre of Beijing last weekend.
It’s hard not to admire the bravery of anyone who shows up. But perhaps the lesson the organizers should have taken away from last week’s failed effort is that the pillars of the support for the regime in China are far stronger than they were in Egypt, Tunisia, Ukraine or Serbia.
The rabbits might not like their government much, but they aren’t ready to rise up just yet. And the tigers are constantly making preparations for the day they do.
Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail’s correspondent based in China.