Roving thoughts and provocations

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Middle East Revolutions: The View from China

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
A Chinese newsstand with a newspaper in the foreground headlined, “Egypt’s Disturbances May Upset Mideast Situation,” Beijing, February 2, 2011

Chinese authorities have done what they can to block news of Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. Reports about Egypt in China’s state-run media have been brief and vacuous. 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, Mubarak has received a drubbing: “autocrat,” “corrupt thug,” and so on. Thus, while Chinese censors have declared the word Mubarak (along with “Egypt” and others) to be “sensitive” and have set up filters to delete any message that contains it, Chinese Web users, in their usual cat-and-mouse game, have invented witty substitutes. These include “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.

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.

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. The direct exchanges that Wang Lixiong has arranged between the Dalai Lama and thousands of Chinese citizens, for example, have all been done by Twitter, 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 Nobel Peace 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 Vaclav Havel (whose Czech Charter 77 provided the inspiration for China’s Charter 08). They see these Europeans as fighting against similar antagonists 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.” Still, none of the activists I spoke to felt that it would be practical to call for Egypt-type street protests at this point.

Language Log
A protester in Cairo holds a sign written in Chinese, reading “The Egyptian people demand that President Mubarak step down”

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 affected a near-total shut down 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 shut down 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.”

Ever since Henry Kissinger went to China in 1971 to open relations between the US and Chinese governments, US policy toward China has been hamstrung by an inability to see that China is far more than, and often quite different from, its rulers. Even the gruesome massacre by the regime of its own citizens at Tiananmen Square in 1989 caused only a partial and ephemeral departure from the working principle that “China” means the CCP leadership, and that’s all. In recent weeks, though, there have been some signs that the Obama administration is moving out of this baleful myopia and may finally be willing to have the US government speak past China’s rulers to the Chinese people who stand in the background. On January 13, President Obama met personally with five American activists who have for years been pressing the US to do this. On February 15, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton delivered a speech on Internet freedom in which she said the US is committed to helping people in China and elsewhere “get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors,” and in other ways join a free and open Internet. She said the US plans to award $25 million this year in competitive grants to “technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression.”

Americans should applaud this move. In principle it is a turn in the right direction. But we need to ask if the proportions are right. How does $25 million per year compare with several hundreds of millions per day that wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are costing? And which method—fighting Internet repression or fighting wars—seems more likely actually to bring democracy?

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