China analogy wrong
Lin Cho-shui (林濁水) mistakenly tried to draw an analogy with China following the recent unrest in North Africa (“Beijing strangely silent on Mideast,” Feb. 24, page 8), as did Wang Dan (王丹) (“Revolution in N Africa has lessons for Chinese,” Feb. 23, page 8, and “From little acorns can grow mighty oak trees,” Feb. 25, page 8).
Lin pointed to the levels of GDP in Egypt and Tunisia, expressing surprise that economic growth did not prevent the overthrow of the regimes there and suggesting that China is nervous of the apparent precedent it sets — hence the censorship of the news from North Africa by the Chinese state.
Of course, China doesn’t want to allow its population to draw any inspiration from North Africa and is nervous of the possible precedent, but the cases are nowhere near comparable. Crucially, Lin mistakes the headline GDP rate for the economy as a whole. The fact is that in the Arab world, authoritarian regimes have over the last two or three decades encouraged high levels of education, but have been unable to find jobs for an increasingly university-educated middle class.
Indeed, massive levels of unemployment and subsequent frustration at the lack of political change is a key factor in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Although not without disturbances in rural areas, China, on the other hand, has on the whole managed its economic development far more successfully, including providing work for its educated people.
The closest China has come to anything like the events in North Africa ended in a bloodbath at Tiananmen Square in 1989. These protests were characterized by “youth,” to paraphrase Wang, but not the “Internet,” which had yet to become public.
Overall, the Internet generally has failed to live up to expectations as an agent of political (or social) change, the 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolution notwithstanding. It has not played a significant role in the overthrow of any authoritarian government to date. The failure of the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” shows exactly that. At best, in Egypt (but not Tunisia) it helped get the message of protesters out — but so did the traditional international news media.
Despite this, Wang claims that the Internet is a powerful tool for change in China, but it is no more so than any other medium. To think otherwise is to potentially make the mistake many made at the time over Iran’s so-called “Twitter Revolution” in 2009. At first, it seemed that Internet-based social media were instrumental in organizing the protests. However, later analysis showed this not to be the case at all.
The key factor is always the army, police and government insiders. If these key people have more to lose defending the regime, they’ll turn against it. Otherwise they’ll defend it, as they did in Tiananmen Square. And as long as enough people in China generally, including the university educated, continue to find jobs and feel increasingly affluent, then there will be little appetite for revolution, in the short term at least.
The existence of the Internet itself is unlikely to usher in democratic change in China. One commentator talking about Iran warned of the danger of confusing the reality on the ground with an online “visual bubble,” saying that movements are not about technology but people. He could easily have been saying the same thing about China.