From Tahrir to Tiananmen

Why China's Great Firewall is blocking Internet searches of Egypt.

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.

Dissatisfaction with corruption and government mismanagement is widespread in China, though for now the anger is much more localized and has not translated into opposition to the broader Chinese Communist Party. China's state media recently reported that a study by Shanghai Jiao Tong University found "crises of public opinion" (vaguely defined as "incidents that sparked public outcries and evaluations of local governments' performances in handling them") occurred an average of once every five days in 2010. Today, most "crises" happen over abuses by local-level officials; citizens give Beijing the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the central government would fix the problem if it knew about it. Still, China's leaders fear that the individuals participating in local-level protests might "link up," as they have in Egypt, and begin to threaten the system itself.

The idea that regular people from all walks of life across the country could come together to demand regime change terrifies Beijing. Still, what really keeps the country's leaders awake at night are the twin facts that Egypt's internal security services have apparently been overwhelmed by the size of the crowds and that the military has apparently refused orders to crack down. This is again reminiscent of the crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when local troops refused to use force on the protesters and China's leaders were forced to bring in military units from another region. China has reformed its internal security services since then, and its leaders frequently highlight the party's "absolute leadership" over the military. There are no indications that the military and internal security services would balk in the face of a large-scale popular revolt today. Still, China's leaders would certainly prefer not to test them.

Of course, a major grievance that the Tunisian and Egyptian people do not share with the Chinese people is a lack of economic development. While their economies have generally stagnated for several years, China's has famously skyrocketed, making China's the world's second-largest economy just 30 years after the doldrums of Maoist collectivism. Yet instead of comforting China's leaders, this fact only reinforces what they already knew: that stability in China, and the continued survival of the one-party state, depends on continued fast-paced growth. As China's per capita income grows higher, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain the astronomically high levels of economic expansion needed to keep people employed and comfortable. If growth levels start to decline, this final pillar of popular legitimacy for the party may begin to weaken.

For now, should China's leaders be worried? Probably not. The economy is in good shape; discontent is localized and has not translated into opposition; and the state has a greater degree of control over the Chinese people's access to information than was true in Tunisia or Egypt.

But worried they are. Beijing fears that events in the Middle East will inspire the discontented within China and spur them on. For a regime founded on popular revolution against bourgeois oppression, China's discomfort with mass movements is striking. Maybe Winston Churchill had it right that "dictators ride to and fro on tigers from which they dare not dismount."



What Do Israel and Iran Have in Common?

Their hard-liners want Mubarak out.

To say that relations between Israel and Iran have seen better days would not be an exaggeration. Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear program had already pushed tensions to new heights. The formation of a new pro-Hezbollah government in Beirut made them worse.

Yet all of a sudden, events in Egypt have given both countries something they haven't had for a long time: shared interest. For both the Islamic Republic and Israel, the immediate implications of massive demonstrations on the streets of Egypt are bad.

For Iran's leaders, the fact that tens of thousands of Egyptians have defied the security forces and poured onto the streets to demand more jobs ought to make them nervous. The economic situation in Iran is also deteriorating. Recent changes to the government's vast subsidy program pushed up the price of food and other basic commodities, thus increasing economic hardship. As they watch events in Egypt, it would be logical for Iran's leaders to worry that their citizens may follow suit. (And the fact that the Iranian government deployed large numbers of security forces when the subsidy reform plan was implemented in December is a sign of just how worried it already was.)

There is also the political factor. Many Egyptian demonstrators initially asked for better economic conditions, but soon went on to call for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, whose democratic credentials are slim and getting slimmer. After President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial reelection, which millions saw as fraudulent, and the subsequent brutal crackdown, these days an increasing number of Iranians also believe that they live under a dictatorship. In a statement issued Jan. 29, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi likened the situation in Egypt to Iran in June 2009. "Pharaohs usually hear the voice of the nation when it is too late," he warned, meaning the regime in Tehran should heed the demands of its people lest it, too, be at risk of being overthrown.

For now the Iranian government is doing all it can to counter the threat. Its key strategy consists of emphasizing the message that Islam is the real reason behind the uprising of Egyptians. "The uprising of the people of Egypt is due to the awakening of Islam in the region," an Iranian Foreign Ministry official said Jan. 28. Other officials try to convey the message that just like Iran today, Egypt will be an Islamic country in character. "To those who do not see the realities, I clarify that an Islamic Middle East is being created based on Islam, religion, and democracy with prevailing religious principals," stated Tehran's Friday prayers leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, on Jan. 28.

The Iranian press is following suit by conveying the message that the situation facing Mubarak is not like the one that Supreme leader Al: Khamenei faces. "Similarities between Mubarak and the shah of Iran, prior to being deposed" ran the headline of an article published Jan. 29 on the pro-Ahmadinejad Raja News website. "The fate of the shah of Iran awaits Mubarak" read another headline, this time published by the Iran News Network on Jan. 31.

The same goes for Israel's leaders, albeit for different reasons.

First, there is the Gaza factor. While Egypt's security forces are busy worrying about domestic developments, Israelis worry, Hamas could use the chaos to increase the transfer of weapons and militants, possibly from Hezbollah, through Sinai and into the Gaza Strip via its sophisticated network of tunnels.

There's also no question the demonstrations are weakening Mubarak's regime, a key ally of Israel in the Middle East. His government has cooperated with Israel for years: sharing intelligence, working to contain Hamas, and of course maintaining bilateral peace. Egypt has been a key player in negotiations over the release of Israeli soldiers such as Gilad Shalit. A weakened Mubarak will most probably have to scale back such cooperation. And if Mubarak is deposed, it's highly doubtful that whatever government replaces him will be nearly as helpful.

In the long run, assuming events in Egypt are not replicated in Iran, Mubarak's ouster could in fact benefit the Islamic Republic. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief who has emerged as a key figurehead for the Egyptian opposition, would most probably allow Iran to open an embassy in Cairo. During his tenure as the head of the IAEA, he tried to maintain good relations with the West and Iran at the same time. It's likely that he would follow this strategy as president. Under his leadership, Egypt could become the second Turkey, meaning an emerging country that tries to reach out to the West and Islamic countries at the same time. But if the Muslim Brotherhood takes power, its vehement anti-Israel tirades and support for Hamas would be cheered in Tehran -- concerns Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed in a Jan. 31 news conference.

Although Mubarak's fall would be very bad news for Israel as a whole, some right-wing parties, such as Yisrael Beitenu and its head Avigdor Lieberman, would share the ayatollahs' joy, albeit for a different reason. For Lieberman, who famously stated in October 2008 that Mubarak could "go to hell," a less Israel-friendly Egypt or one that is altogether anti-Israel would greatly serve his party's ultranationalist platform, which thrives on the message that the entire Arab world is against Israel.

Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.