We in the West have played a role too. Pre-1989, Chinese pro-democracy campaigners would look Westward and see not only a different political model, but also greater economic success. They assumed that only the former could deliver the latter. That assumption now lies in pieces, thanks to the contrast between a roaring China and a stagnating West.
The financial crash of 2008 broke the appeal of the Western model, said Shi Yinhong (時殷弘), a professor at Renmin University.
“China is emancipated from that feeling of inferiority,” he said.
All of which should leave the regime feeling secure in its own position. Yet it hardly acts that way.
“They’re acutely aware of the risk,” one diplomat said, describing how closely Beijing watched the Arab Spring, seeking to learn from the ousted despots’ mistakes.
One immediate response was to prevent the possibility of large crowds, flooding popular areas with security personnel to disperse potential groups, even ordering street-sweeping vehicles to drive closer to the pavement in order to keep people moving. There may be some freedom of speech in today’s China, but there is next to no freedom of association.
This anxiety of the regime’s can go to absurd lengths. During November last year’s national congress they imposed a no-fly zone in the area, applied to balloons and model aeroplanes. That came after the mandatory removal of window handles from all Beijing taxis, lest anyone try to distribute subversive leaflets from a moving cab. Most revealing, China spends more on internal than external security.
“That tells you what the government sees as its biggest threat — and it’s not Japan or the US,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis Group said.
Evidence of that nervousness comes in the way the regime caves so rapidly when confronted with China’s equivalent of a Twitterstorm: Call it a Weibo wave. Yang Dacai (楊達才), a provincial official, paid the price last year when he was photographed grinning incongruously at the scene of a road crash that had left 36 dead. Microbloggers turned on him, soon finding more pictures, this time showing him wearing a range of ultra-expensive wristwatches — all beyond the salary of a humble civil servant. Feeling the heat, the party investigated Yang for corruption and he was gone.
With microbloggers now in the high hundreds of millions, the regime regards this new political space with trepidation. The next wave could come over pollution. Some say the smog that clouded Beijing this week is testing the regime’s legitimacy: What good is a government that cannot ensure air clean enough to breathe? Once in denial over what they called “sea mist,” China’s rulers now discuss the smog as if they know they have to act — and fear the consequences if they fail.