Given the authorities’ dousing of any inflammatory news about civil uprisings against long-standing leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, this Bystander is not surprised that the full fire hose of state propaganda and security was directed at the putative protests called in 13 Chinese cities this weekend. They were in any event damp squibs, seemingly occurring only in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou–if gatherings where police and onlookers believing a crowd was gathering because of the presence of a celebrity heavily outnumbers demonstrators can be called a protest. Even the arrests were in single figures.
It is no secret that the Party leadership has long been concerned about threats to its legitimacy to rule coming from the tens of thousands of protests that break out every year across the country. These are born of grievances over a myriad of local complaints about everything from corrupt officialdom to land disputes and environmental degradation. President Hu Jintao’s drive to create a harmonious society and to close the growing wealth gap in the country is an attempt to nip in the bud the potential civil unrest–and political groups–that could grow from all these.
So longstanding has been this concern that Beijing has already put in place the propaganda and security tools to control the information war. Like the telecoms and cable companies in the U.S. it understands that it is the sovereign of the Internet infrastructure that rules the Internet’s content. Within the Great Firewall, Google, Twitter and Facebook can’t help grass roots activists get around official censorship in China in the way they have facilitated in the Middle East with new software services such as Speak To Tweet. The companies aren’t present in China or in Google’s case, are heavily controlled. Local equivalents, particularly the microblog services, have patriotic obligations put upon them. Independent blogs and news sites get closed down in short order. An army of official posters and censors puts up pro-governement posts and takes down any deviating from the Party line. Mainstream media is overwhelming state run and, where not, expected to follow the guidance of Xinhua, especially when it comes to news reporting and commentary. The Politburo has reinforced the rules since Hosni Murbarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt earlier this month, and the Propaganda Department stepped up enforcement, including guidance to tone down reporting of any local incidents of disturbances.
This weekend, President Hu Jintao outlined eight points for strengthening the Party’s management over social order. The reemergence of the term social management indicates some sort of compromise, or stand-off, between the Party’s hardliners and reformers. Among the eight was one calling for tighter management over what is being said over the Internet, though Harmonious Hu also stressed the need to address the underlying problems causing the societal issues:
Further strengthen and improve controls on the information web, raising our level of control over virtual society, and perfecting our mechanisms for the channeling of public opinion online.
The goal is not anything as crude and easily criticized as shutting down the Internet or even to shut down the online conversation, but to cower and control it, with the hard and well practiced power of preemptive rounding up of dissidents providing the steel within the velvet glove.
Gene Sharp, the American nonagenarian academic who wrote the handbook on the non-violent overthrow of dictators, From Dictatorship to Democracy, a pamphlet that has been used by activists from Indonesia to Serbia to oust governments, but which, equally, provides a readymade excuse for any dictator that the U.S. is behind attempts to unseat them, argues that the power of dictatorships comes from the willing obedience of the people they govern, and that regimes don’t fall until the people withhold that consent. The Party understands that and is determined not to let itself get pushed to anywhere near that point.
Beijing has got ahead of this in a way that no authoritarian ruler in the Middle East had even begun to think about until recently. In China, the outbreak of the unrest in the Middle East, and particularly the toppling of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, has sharpened Beijing’s need to be on top of its game. But it is one that it has been playing for a long time. Sharp’s argument for not taking the violent path to revolution is that that means taking on a regime’s best weapons. In many countries where social media have helped force regime change, the authorities were not just outgunned on the Internet, they didn’t know how to fight there or even that it was a theatre of war. It is far from clear that that is the case with China. We have even heard suggestions that the calls for his weekend’s protests were no more than an elaborate official fire drill.
Authoritarian regimes don’t fall because a few activists have read a pamphlet and put out a few Tweets. Conditions within a society have to be ripe. Uprisings to overthrow the Tsars in Russia failed in 1905-06 but succeeded in 1917; Murbarak was able to put down protests against his regime in 2006 but not this year. In both cases conditions on the ground had changed. We don’t believe conditions are ripe in China at this point to support a popular uprising that could overthrow the Party non-violently. We do believe the seeds for such conditions exist. Whether they flourish of wither is as much in the hands of the Party as it is in those of the people.