For the first time in memory, places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen are starting to understand what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote that "when the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty." Middle East citizens have long been fearful -- but now with protesters overwhelming the streets, the regimes finally are too. Yet as people power has swept autocrats out of Tunis and Cairo, Middle Eastern regimes aren't the only ones getting nervous. Beijing is also paying rapt attention.
By Jefferson's definition, China today looks a lot like these newly weakened Middle Eastern governments. The country's people are certainly afraid of their government, with its internal security apparatus busily cracking down on protests, monitoring China's active blogosphere, and even censoring the remarks of China's own premier. Yet so too does the government in Beijing fear its people. Although China is not nearly close to a popular revolt on the scale we see today in the Middle East, its leaders are nonetheless nervous.
Indeed, fear of unrest profoundly influences decision-making at the highest levels of the Chinese system. So far, the state media have been broadcasting a steady stream of burning vehicles and other reminders of the perils of chaos, as the New Yorker's Evan Osnos points out. China's 457 million Internet users (and 180 million bloggers) can no longer use the Chinese word for "Egypt" in microblogs or search engines. The government's goal is to pre-empt any contagion effect that popular uprisings against autocracy in the Middle East might have in China, inspiring the country's ranks of discontented.
People's revolutions are a big deal for China. They are at the foundation of the popular myths surrounding the birth and rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party, yet so too have they threatened that party's very existence. The pro-democracy protests and subsequent crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 taught the Chinese people a lesson about how far their government would go to maintain stability. The devastating Cultural Revolution is now portrayed not as a horrific outgrowth of Chairman Mao's efforts to weed out opposition, but rather as an example of what happens when people are allowed to run amok without government control. During the 1989 protests, China's leaders reportedly described the actions of the protesters in Tiananmen Square as "beating, smashing, and robbing" (da za qiang) -- the same phrase used to describe the atrocities committed by the violent and ideological Red Guard. Still wary it could happen again, China's leaders are hypervigilant about quashing any nascent unrest.
China's leaders do not have to look far to be nervous; some of the seeds for discontent are already in place. In October 2010, 23 former Chinese leaders published an open letter calling for the abolition of censorship, the protection of free speech, and freedom of the press (translation here from the China Media Project). A party journal, Seeking Truth, pushed back, saying this would lead inevitably to "national collapse." The journal drew parallels with the collapse of the Soviet Union, arguing that political reform caused the USSR's disintegration. Tellingly, the article pointed out that Mikhail Gorbachev (whom China blames for the USSR's disintegration) was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The China Media Project interprets this reference as a veiled allusion to recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, whose award Beijing views as an example of how the West uses pressure to reform to undermine the Chinese Communist Party.