Wed, Feb 23, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Revolution in N Africa has lessons for Chinese

By Wang Dan 王丹

The recent eruption of revolution in Egypt has gotten everyone talking about the possibility of a fourth wave of democratization. Compared with similar social events in the past, this latest wave of revolution is unique. The two key words for the Egyptian revolution are “Internet” and “youth.”

In Egypt, we have seen the Internet become a core mechanism for changing a society through revolution. We have also seen how powerless a normally strong, authoritarian government can become once the power of the Internet is unleashed. This has once again shown us how the Internet is changing society through its unlimited potential. When Egyptian youth started to organize via Facebook and Twitter, the first reaction of then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s government was to resort to authoritarian methods, which of course involved blocking the Internet. What it never expected was that that angered a generation of people who have grown up with the Internet, and, more importantly, this left them with no choice but to hit the streets in protest. That the Egyptian government lost all support shows the huge impact the Internet can have. The Internet is like a sleeping lion. When Internet users merely use it to meet people, play games and listen to music, an authoritarian regime sees it as merely a form of entertainment, full of benefits and with no drawbacks, because it can divert the attention of the youth from politics. However, when this lion is awakened, it is unstoppable.

Despite the power of the Internet, it still needs someone to open up and channel this force. In Egypt, that was done by a small group of young people. A report in the Wall Street Journal revealed the careful planning by about a dozen activists and how they managed to employ feinting strategies to get the protests going. I often say that historical changes require the action of a small group of key people at a key moment. In the Egyptian revolution, those dozen or so people changed history. These people have a few distinguishing characteristics. First, they are all professionals, such as lawyers or other white-collar workers. Second, some of them have been influenced by the experiences of family members who had resisted the government in the past. Third, they are all Internet-savvy, with some even being Webmasters. They are all young, brave, fearless, smart, full of passion, posses the power to act and understand modern technology.

The Egyptian revolution did not happen by itself. These young people planned it. Why was it them? Part of the reason is that young people have borne the brunt of Egypt’s economic crisis, at an age when they still had bright hopes for the future. The psychological impact this had on them was greater than it was on other age groups. We can thus see that young people are the natural driving force behind social revolutions.

When we look at China and discuss the changes that may happen there, the pessimists are most disappointed with the Internet and with Chinese youth. They believe the Internet has diverted the attention of the people and that it has young people hooked. They believe today’s youth do not care about politics or society and therefore changes in China are still a long way away. However, I believe the same complaints could be heard in Egypt five years ago and maybe even one year ago. Before a revolution happens, it is very easy to focus on the most negative factors. However, Egypt has proved that the Internet and young people are key when it comes to social revolution and that when the two come together, successful revolutions happen.

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