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How China Fears the Middle East Revolutions

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Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images
Young men at an Internet café in Beijing, February 2010

Chinese authorities have done what they can to stop news—and worse, from their point of view, any influence—of Tunisian and Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. They have been worrying especially about what social media like Twitter and Facebook can do to political power in the Internet age. On the morning of February 19, Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered a major speech to an audience of provincial governors and central government ministers on maintaining social stability. After a review of the glorious achievements of the Communist Party of China and the immutable correctness of Party ideology, Hu made three main points. He did not directly mention the Middle East or any resonances that the protests there have had in China, but said: one, we need to greatly strengthen control of information on the Internet; two, we need to regulate the “virtual society” that it has given rise to; and three, we need to guide public opinion in this new virtual society in “healthy directions.”

As if to make Hu’s worst nightmare come true, on that same day, February 19, someone put an anonymous post on the Internet calling for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China. The police response was immediate. Within hours, Chinese democracy advocates in several cities, including prominent rights lawyers and signers of the democracy manifesto called Charter 08, were detained, interrogated, or brought to police stations for “invitations to tea” of the kind that a person is not allowed to refuse.

The Jasmine appeal had appeared on a news website called boxun, “rich information,” that is edited in the US by Chinese exiles, and Internet police were quick to shut the site down in China. But the appeal had already got out on the Chinese Internet and spread quickly through Twitter, microblogs, and other social media. Soon activists had planned demonstrations in at least thirteen major cities. Initial gatherings, in Beijing and Shanghai on February 20, were broken up by police, but meetings took place in other cities.

The anti-authoritarian protests in North Africa, from their beginnings, had received only brief and vacuous reports in the state-run Chinese media. On February 6, at the height of the protests, the People’s Daily informed readers that “the Egyptian government is continuing to carry out its various measures to support restoration of social order.” But on the Chinese Internet, which despite vigorous policing is hard to stifle, Hosni Mubarak received a drubbing: “autocrat,” “corrupt thug,” and so on. When Chinese censors declared the word “Mubarak” (along with “Egypt”—and now “Jasmine”) to be “sensitive” and set up filters to delete any message that contains it, Chinese Web users, in their usual cat-and-mouse game, began inventing witty substitutes. These included “Mu Xiaoping” and “Mu Jintao”—which, by playing on the names of China’s own autocrats, get around the censors and up the ante at the same time. They ridiculed Mubarak for claiming, as China’s rulers often do, that the only alternative to his regime is chaos.

The Egyptian uprising is an awkward fact for China’s rulers because it undermines one of their favorite arguments. They have long claimed that China has “special characteristics” (meaning that its people prefer authoritarianism, at least for now) and that demands in China for democracy and human rights are merely results of the subversive tactics of “anti-China” forces based in Western countries. But if that theory is true, then one needs to explain why millions of Egyptian people were opposing Mubarak, who was a US client. Plainly something deeper was motivating them.

The example of Tunisia raises a related question, equally awkward. For China’s rulers, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted dictator, would have been seen as following their own approach—the so-called “Chinese model”—of economic growth combined with political repression and having much success with it, or so it was assumed for many years. But the Tunisian people took to the streets to overthrow him. Did the people want something more than the Chinese model? How could that be?

In recent years, China’s own activists have identified freedom, democracy, human rights, and human dignity as “universal values”: this is one of the core ideas in Charter 08, the reform document the government has tried so hard to suppress. China’s rulers have countered by claiming that “so-called” universal values are merely “tactics peddled by the West.” This confrontation has spawned a “universal values debate” in Chinese intellectual circles, where the government’s side, benefiting from its control of the media, has until recently been holding its own. But when young people in Tunisia and Egypt (of all places!) speak up for universal values, the claim that these values are parochial and imposed by the US and its Western allies is undermined.

On Saturday, February 12, the day after Hosni Mubarak resigned, a part of the politburo of the Communist Party of China held a special meeting in Beijing. News of this meeting reached me from a democracy activist in Beijing, who said a secretary who was present at the meeting had leaked a summary of its contents. The democracy activist is a person who is well positioned to judge the authenticity of such a report.On February 18 the boxun news service carried the summary, which read:

The agenda for the meeting was “to adjust foreign policy” and the main purpose was to decide on tactics to counter the current wave of democratization in the Middle East. The meeting set revised targets for the police and the military, but the primary emphasis was on propaganda. The meeting called upon the Propaganda Department and its subsidiary organs to do the following:
—Halt all independent reports, commentaries, or discussions (including Internet threads), whether in the print media or the Internet, on the situations in Egypt and similar places;
—Strengthen work in filtering and managing blogs, microblogs, and discussion forums;
—Assure that media in all locations uniformly adhere to the standard texts of the New China News Agency in any report or commentary on the Middle East.
The meeting decided, as well, that all of the major newspapers under the Propaganda Department must strengthen their guidance of public opinion and stress the theme that the current turmoil “is plotted by the United States behind the scenes.” At the same time, efforts to criticize and control microblogs must be sharply increased, and advance measures should be taken to prepare for the possibility that part of the Internet will be shut down.
Following the meeting, propaganda chiefs across the country were given an additional instruction to “reduce the reporting on any sensitive incident that might occur in your locale.”

The words of the politburo have quick effects in China. At least for the next few weeks, we can expect increased deletion of Web messages and closing of websites that mention the Middle East, as well as accelerated “guidance” of public opinion in the state-run press. On February 18, for example, the Global Times, a newspaper that combines flashy fashion with strict adherence to the Party line, ran a piece under its editorials called “Microblogs Are Not Necessarily Such Great Things.”

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt could not have happened without Facebook and Twitter. Young people used these social media to communicate and to organize, and the repressive apparatus of their governments could not keep pace. Facebook has yet to enter China in a major way, but Twitter has already made a huge difference. In Beijing, the Chinese pro-democracy intellectual Wang Lixiong has used Twitter to arrange direct exchanges between the Dalai Lama and thousands of Chinese citizens, for example, and Twitter is the preferred medium for personal exchanges among people who want to stay one step ahead of the Internet police.

But the deftness of technology is only one reason why Liu Xiaobo, China’s imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has called the Internet “God’s gift to China.” Even more important for Chinese wangmin, or “Web-citizens,” has been the psychological liberation made possible by online anonymity. Throughout the Communist period, Chinese media censorship has been based largely on self-censorship induced by fear. But this mechanism works only when the fear-inducing authority knows who you are. The multifarious and very frank expression that can be found on the Chinese Internet today is done almost entirely under pseudonyms. The authorities have banned the use of pseudonyms, but when 400 million people use them anyway, what can they do?

In bearing witness to the popular movements taking hold in Cairo, Tunis, Bahrain, and elsewhere in recent weeks, social media and the Internet have broadened the vision even of Chinese democracy activists themselves, including the drafters of Charter 08. In talks with some of them in recent days, I have learned that they, too, were a bit surprised to see democracy sprouting in North Africa. At first they didn’t quite know what to make of it. Until now, they have identified mostly with Eastern European dissidents of the past such as Adam Michnik and Václav Havel (whose Czech Charter 77 provided the inspiration for China’s Charter 08). They see these Europeans as fighting against antagonists similar to their own—Communist dictatorships—and having shared goals: democracy and human rights of a kind that someone like Havel articulates so well.

In contrast, many Chinese, even to some extent democracy activists, have been taught that Africans are “backward”; and since the US-led “war on terror,” activists have sometimes been too ready to give credence to negative American portrayals of the Muslim world. As they think beyond these barriers, however, these activists have begun to embrace the North African democrats as comrades. One of them told me, “Even if they choose something we would not choose”—such as an Islamic state—“if they do it democratically, we must defend their choice.”

How Egyptians might feel about China, whether in regard to the government in Beijing or the people who have endorsed Charter 08, is hard to say. But it is certainly interesting that a few of the protesters’ signs in Tahrir Square—“Mubarak Go!” and “The Egyptian People Demand Mubarak Resign”—were written in Chinese.

Can the authoritarian regimes of the world stop the march of Internet democracy? For five days at the height of the protests, Mubarak’s people were able to shut down the Internet and, for a time, cell phone networks as well. This was a tactic Chinese authorities had already tried out—in the western region of Xinjiang, after disturbances there in July 2009, it effected a near-total shutdown of 312 days. Last year Xiao Qiang, a leading expert on the Chinese Internet, was debating a man of high position in China’s power elite about the Internet’s “threat to stability.” As if playing a trump card, the man said at one point, “If we have to, we can always pull the plug on the whole thing.” Xiao says this made him feel a sudden chill.

But could China’s authorities really do such a thing? They spend probably tens of billions of yuan annually to control the Internet; official Chinese sources have revealed that the government spends over 500 billion yuan ($76 billion) a year on domestic “stability maintenance.” Yet a complete shutdown might still be technically difficult. And even if it were feasible, so many people in China now depend on the Internet—not just for political commentary but also for information, commerce, recreation, and communication—that “pulling the plug” would be truly cataclysmic, and hardly conducive to “stability.”

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