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 …

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