February 01, 2011

From Tahrir to Tiananmen

Featuring Abraham M. Denmark

For the first time in memory, places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen are starting to understand what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote that "when the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty." Middle East citizens have long been fearful -- but now with protesters overwhelming the streets, the regimes finally are too. Yet as people power has swept autocrats out of Tunis and Cairo, Middle Eastern regimes aren't the only ones getting nervous. Beijing is also paying rapt attention.

By Jefferson's definition, China today looks a lot like these newly weakened Middle Eastern governments. The country's people are certainly afraid of their government, with its internal security apparatus busily cracking down on protests, monitoring China's active blogosphere, and even censoring the remarks of China's own premier. Yet so too does the government in Beijing fear its people. Although China is not nearly close to a popular revolt on the scale we see today in the Middle East, its leaders are nonetheless nervous.

Indeed, fear of unrest profoundly influences decision-making at the highest levels of the Chinese system. So far, the state media have been broadcasting a steady stream of burning vehicles and other reminders of the perils of chaos, as the New Yorker's Evan Osnos points out. China's 457 million Internet users (and 180 million bloggers) can no longer use the Chinese word for "Egypt" in microblogs or search engines. The government's goal is to pre-empt any contagion effect that popular uprisings against autocracy in the Middle East might have in China, inspiring the country's ranks of discontented.

People's revolutions are a big deal for China. They are at the foundation of the popular myths surrounding the birth and rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party, yet so too have they threatened that party's very existence. The pro-democracy protests and subsequent crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 taught the Chinese people a lesson about how far their government would go to maintain stability. The devastating Cultural Revolution is now portrayed not as a horrific outgrowth of Chairman Mao's efforts to weed out opposition, but rather as an example of what happens when people are allowed to run amok without government control. During the 1989 protests, China's leaders reportedly described the actions of the protesters in Tiananmen Square as "beating, smashing, and robbing" (da za qiang) -- the same phrase used to describe the atrocities committed by the violent and ideological Red Guard. Still wary it could happen again, China's leaders are hypervigilant about quashing any nascent unrest.

China's leaders do not have to look far to be nervous; some of the seeds for discontent are already in place. In October 2010, 23 former Chinese leaders published an open letter calling for the abolition of censorship, the protection of free speech, and freedom of the press (translation here from the China Media Project). A party journal, Seeking Truth, pushed back, saying this would lead inevitably to "national collapse." The journal drew parallels with the collapse of the Soviet Union, arguing that political reform caused the USSR's disintegration. Tellingly, the article pointed out that Mikhail Gorbachev (whom China blames for the USSR's disintegration) was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The China Media Project interprets this reference as a veiled allusion to recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, whose award Beijing views as an example of how the West uses pressure to reform to undermine the Chinese Communist Party.

Dissatisfaction with corruption and government mismanagement is widespread in China, though for now the anger is much more localized and has not translated into opposition to the broader Chinese Communist Party. China's state media recently reported that a study by Shanghai Jiao Tong University found "crises of public opinion" (vaguely defined as "incidents that sparked public outcries and evaluations of local governments' performances in handling them") occurred an average of once every five days in 2010. Today, most "crises" happen over abuses by local-level officials; citizens give Beijing the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the central government would fix the problem if it knew about it. Still, China's leaders fear that the individuals participating in local-level protests might "link up," as they have in Egypt, and begin to threaten the system itself.

The idea that regular people from all walks of life across the country could come together to demand regime change terrifies Beijing. Still, what really keeps the country's leaders awake at night are the twin facts that Egypt's internal security services have apparently been overwhelmed by the size of the crowds and that the military has apparently refused orders to crack down. This is again reminiscent of the crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when local troops refused to use force on the protesters and China's leaders were forced to bring in military units from another region. China has reformed its internal security services since then, and its leaders frequently highlight the party's "absolute leadership" over the military. There are no indications that the military and internal security services would balk in the face of a large-scale popular revolt today. Still, China's leaders would certainly prefer not to test them.

Of course, a major grievance that the Tunisian and Egyptian people do not share with the Chinese people is a lack of economic development. While their economies have generally stagnated for several years, China's has famously skyrocketed, making China's the world's second-largest economy just 30 years after the doldrums of Maoist collectivism. Yet instead of comforting China's leaders, this fact only reinforces what they already knew: that stability in China, and the continued survival of the one-party state, depends on continued fast-paced growth. As China's per capita income grows higher, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain the astronomically high levels of economic expansion needed to keep people employed and comfortable. If growth levels start to decline, this final pillar of popular legitimacy for the party may begin to weaken.

For now, should China's leaders be worried? Probably not. The economy is in good shape; discontent is localized and has not translated into opposition; and the state has a greater degree of control over the Chinese people's access to information than was true in Tunisia or Egypt.

But worried they are. Beijing fears that events in the Middle East will inspire the discontented within China and spur them on. For a regime founded on popular revolution against bourgeois oppression, China's discomfort with mass movements is striking. Maybe Winston Churchill had it right that "dictators ride to and fro on tigers from which they dare not dismount."