Ever since the Chinese Communist Party's near-death experience in 1989 -- the last time it faced anything close to the mass popular protests witnessed in recent weeks in the Middle East -- the rulers in Beijing have taken no chances when it comes to social movements. So when an online appeal calling for Chinese citizens to emulate the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt actually translated into gatherings of half-curious, half-prudent onlookers in Beijing and a handful of other cities two weeks ago, the authorities reacted swiftly.
Several Internet users who had relayed the appeal on microblogs, such as Twitter, were arrested for "inciting subversion," a state security crime. Police rounded up, detained, or placed under house arrest more than 100 people nationwide. Three prominent lawyers who had been taken away by the police in Beijing on Feb. 16 and 19 have yet to reappear. Another lawyer who turned up at a tentative gathering in the southern city of Guangzhou on Feb. 19 was beaten up on the spot and then also disappeared by the police. In Sichuan province, two well-known bloggers and civil society activists, Chen Wei and Ran Yunfei, were arrested, also on Feb. 19. Chen is under investigation for the crime of "inciting subversion," the offense for which Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was sent to prison for 11 years in December 2009; Ran is under investigation for "subversion," which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Beijing didn't stop there. The Chinese government simultaneously deployed thousands of uniformed and plainclothes police at the sites of the gatherings and strengthened its censorship of Twitter-like services and virtual social networks. It also sought to suppress foreign media coverage by having the police harass foreign journalists, physically assaulting several of them, including BBC correspondent Damian Grammaticas, when they turned up this past Sunday, Feb. 27, to see whether the anonymous online call to organize weekly "protest walks" had attracted any participants. Official media coverage of Middle East events has downplayed demands for democracy and human rights, explaining the crisis as a consequence of the hike in food prices.
By now, countless observers have pointed to the vast differences between the situation in China and that in the Middle East to explain why protests are far less likely in the East Asian giant. While unemployment rates have ballooned and economies stagnated in the Middle East, for example, many Chinese have experienced two decades of gradual but substantial improvements in their livelihoods. Revolution won't spread to China, goes the conventional wisdom, as long as the economy keeps humming.
But Beijing's sledgehammer response has left many people wondering just how paranoid and insecure the leadership is about the risks of instability in the country. If the Chinese government resorts so readily to measures that are clearly overkill, doesn't it indicate a fundamental lack of confidence in the real stability of the country and the legitimacy of the ruling party. As Mao Zedong famously said, "A single spark could set the prairie alight." Surely a regime truly confident in its legitimacy and achievements would not feel the need to respond in such a disproportionate way.
There is some truth to this counterargument. The Chinese leadership is nervous, especially about the number of protests every year -- 80,000, according to government statistics. But to attribute this paranoia to the events in the Middle East is to misunderstand the Chinese government's point of view. From Beijing's perspective, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were failed authoritarian regimes. China is a successful one. In the same way that the example of failed democracies doesn't dissuade democrats in places where free and liberal institutions function reasonably well, Chinese leaders don't think the Middle East situation applies to them. Their system delivers growth, is free from foreign influence, puts capable people in positions of power, doesn't require military rule behind the scenes, keeps political opposition to a minimum, and doesn't hold elections that need to be rigged. Or so they say.