The fall of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak seems to have set off what could become a wave of democratization similar to the liberalization of eastern Europe that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union. A “Jasmine Revolution” movement started by a group of Chinese Internet users calling for an independent judiciary, democracy and an end to one-party autocracy also seems to have shaken the Chinese leadership.
The Chinese authorities, very experienced in totalitarian suppression of public movements, reacted as if they were facing a formidable enemy. They immediately dispatched police in large numbers to the urban areas where protests were taking place to seize control and stop the protests from spreading. Officials also strengthened their control and supervision of the Internet, censoring articles and reports including words and phrases like “Jasmine Revolution,” “Egypt,” “Mubarak” and “Wangfujing” — a shopping street in Beijing. They also restricted text messaging, all in an attempt to do whatever is necessary to suppress the “jasmine blossoms.”
A closer look at the causes behind the Jasmine Revolution shows that, although elected, the presidents of both Tunisia and Egypt had been in power for an unreasonably long time. Both countries lacked supervisory mechanisms, there had been no valid handovers of political power and the governments ruled their countries through autocratic methods. Once a spark was set off through the Jasmine Revolution, the revolutions took off.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has run China as an autocratic one-party state since 1949. The country lacks substantive democratic monitoring forces, and there are no free and independent media or any freedom of expression. Nor is there an effective political party system, and the government relies on the military and police force to suppress public movements and ethnic minorities. These similarities in the political environment are why the Chinese leadership fears that a Jasmine Revolution could take off in China.
Although China’s power is growing for the time being, and it recently leapfrogged Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy, there are a considerable number of destabilizing factors lying just below the surface. These include severely worsening social inequality, uneven development between the coastal cities and inland regions, increasing inflation, soaring commodity prices, prohibitively high housing prices in urban areas, an unusually serious drought that could well turn into a famine this year, government corruption and simmering discontent among the people over the wider social conditions in China, which make it a hotbed for a Jasmine Revolution. China already has many of the conditions in place for a revolution to break out; it just lacks the fateful spark to ignite it. This has got the powers that be worried, and they are on tenterhooks over the Jasmine movement. They fear that if they don’t proceed with caution, that spark might still start a fire that will burn their house down.
It is of course possible that the people’s pride in the rise of their nation, coupled with the rapidly rising GDP, will prove stronger than their revolutionary verve and dampen their sense of urgency. The likelihood of a Jasmine Revolution in China anytime soon is not too high, but the Jasmine movement is nevertheless emerging as a force for change in China. The Chinese authorities would be well advised to heed the winds of change blowing through their lands. They need to step up democratization and political and judicial reform, because if they allow political development to lag too far behind economic development, this gap will feed the revolutionary rumblings of the people. Once the ball has started rolling, no amount of force, censorship or “golden shield” initiatives will keep the people down. If they want proof, they need look no further than Tunisia and Egypt.