The aroma of the jasmine revolution in the Arab states may be hovering over China, but the Chinese authorities are still strong and determined to ward off such challenges. Neither the Chinese leaders nor China are comparable to Muammar Gaddafi and Lybia. They proved that in June 1989 while crushing the students’ protests at Beijing’s Tienanmen square. Condemned by the international community, and called the “butchers of Tienanmen square” by US President Bill Clinton during his second presidential campaign, China rose to be espoused by those same western countries.
A Chinese Vice-Minister, well known for his conservative and hardline views, told this writer at a chance dinner in the early 1990s, that Tienanmen square incident will not happen again. He explained that the Chinese security officials had no knowledge of crowd control and dispersal, and were learning from other countries including India. He also added that the pro-democracy protesters had also learnt their lessons, and would not venture to stage such protests.
The Vice-Minister, who had a lot to do with ideology and propaganda, was correct to a great extent. Tienanmen has not repeated. The authorities have not allowed protests to grow. Similarly, the pro-democracy activists have not ventured into unprepared ground. What they have done is gradually garner support from retired senior cadres and intellectuals and keep the embers glowing. The Charter-08 in 2008 was one such example. Individuals have not shied away from sacrificing themselves to keep the cause alive.
The Chinese leaders had anticipated from the very beginning of the jasmine revolution in Tunisia that news and information will spread to China. They took immediate steps to ensure that news of these developments does not enter China. The 90,000 internet police force was deployed and the media prohibited from publishing news of the spreading revolution against the dictatorial regimes. The official media gave brief, tailored information. The official news agency, the Xinhua, of course, kept reporting from these countries information which were meant only for designated officials. The Xinhua also acts as an intelligence agency.
The Chinese leaders are also very aware that the country cannot be hermetically sealed into a vacuum in today’s globalized world where connections are unlimited. They, therefore, took several internal steps.
On January 24, Wu Bangguo, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest body, emphasised at a national conference on China style legal system that the country would not engage in a multi-party political system or diversity in guiding ideology. Excerpts from his speech was published in the party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, on February 01.
On February 19, a day before the first incident of protests against the authoritarian communist government demanding for political reforms, President and Party General Secretary Hu Jintao called for a series of actions to safeguard social control. The supreme court published a document on similar lines,but also called for a risk evaluation mechanism for major sensitive cases. The Public Security Ministry set guidelines for ideological and political work done in public security organizations. More importantly, the Xinhua disclosed that since 2007 each building had an informant assigned to it (as a means of control and information collection). It is significant that the official media has gone on an overdrive to emphasise and warn that turmoil in China was wishful thinking.
Late in 1989, Deng Xiaoping told the visiting head of state of an African country, that the protests were fomented by the US as part of its age-long operation of “peaceful evolution”. While the internal thinking in China’s Zhongnanhai is not known, the Xinhua’s republication (Feb. 23) of a Russian media report that the US “black hand” was behind the Middle East turmoil certainly gives some indications.
The call for protest (Feb. 27) was carefully worded. It asked protestors to take a stroll and eat in designated places in Beijing’s Wangfuqing Shopping area and Shanghai’s people’s square. The code for action on March 6, another Sunday, called to have set meal No.3 at Macdonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), adding “we need one slogan for our jasmine revolution-terminate one-party rule”
The protest leaders have innovated a new technique – tease the authorities but do not get into confrontation. The calls are for successive Sunday actions when offices and educational institutions are closed, and people generally go out to relax.
Expectedly, the authorities filled in the designated areas with overwhelming police and plain clothes security presence and used street sweepers to break up any signs of gatherings. Some foreign journalists trying to cover these areas were manhandled and beaten. But this only embarrassed the spokespersons for Chinese ministries who found it difficult to defend the actions especially against journalists.
Some analysts are of the opinion that there is no similarity between the conditions in the Arab countries and China. The argument is prefaced on the fact that the problems in the Arab countries relate to jobs, food and corruption, while China’s economic revolution has taken care of that. This argument appears deeply flawed.
In the modern world where individual liberty is becoming the moving spirit, the people in these Arab states with dictatorial regimes and security agencies breathing down their necks and peering into the bedrooms, is an Orwellian life they cannot take any more.
China is now the world’s second largest economy. It has millions of millionaires, some listed on Fortune Magazine and Forbes. But the distribution of wealth is abysmal. It has been officially acknowledged that income disparity is widening. There is a losing battle against corruption, given the nexus between party officials, government officials, business elites and the national banks. Why are there between 85,000 to 90,000 protests and demonstrations every year? In the towns and rural area people are just physically squashed if they protest against the land mafia taking over their land in connivance with local authorities and police.
The Chinese people do not like turmoil. That has been a major advantage for the communist regime. But that is unlikely to last long as corruption and disparities seep in.
It is said the Chinese use a hammer to kill a fly. This is a reflection of fear of change. The recent developments also show how nervous the Chinese authorities are. A revolution in China will take time, but the dissidents continue to work. The real upheaval will come when a strong section within the party realises that stability cannot be maintained by force, but with changes. Was Premier Wen Jiabao being honest when he called more than once last year for political reform and democracy to ensure China’s development and democracy? Or was he playing the “good boy, bad boy” game along with President Hu Juintao?
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi.Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)