As Egypt and Tunisia have shown, authoritarian regimes are not especially suited for the Internet age. And China’s tyrants are the latest hard-line despots dealing with this disturbing truth, as they reacted on Sunday to a web campaign calling for a Middle Eastern-style “Jasmine Revolution” with a massive show of force countrywide. Fearing Tunisia’s and Egypt’s Internet-guided uprisings were about to emerge within their borders, Chinese security agencies arrested dozens of anti-government activists and human rights advocates.
“Many human rights defenders have disappeared in recent days, others are under house arrest and their mobile phones are blocked,” a human rights lawyer said.
The security officials’ quick and overwhelming response to the website call for anti-government protests proves that despite all its substantial efforts to control the Internet, the Chinese government has not succeeded in its goal. But more importantly, the regime’s immediate crackdown and the scale of its response demonstrate that the danger of unrest in China and the country’s internal weakness (despite its outward economic strength) must be greater than imagined, making future disturbances almost a certainty.
According to the New York Times, the organizers of Sunday’s protest campaign are unknown. But the messages calling for demonstrations in China first appeared “on a Chinese-language website based in the United States,” which named 13 cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, and sites where protesters should gather. Demonstrators were also urged to yell out: ‘We want work. We want food to eat. We want housing.” as well as “Long live freedom!” and “Long live democracy!” However, police showed up in such large numbers at all the designated areas, it was impossible for the events to go forward.
Unrest is growing in China due to corrupt officials, rising food prices and lack of suitable housing. Although the Party vigorously attacks corruption, ordinary Chinese still feel victimised by an uncaring and often cruel and exploitative bureaucracy and police force.
One analyst, Robert Hartmann, writes that it is no secret some Chinese officials often buy their posts, knowing the bribes they pocket will far exceed the money they paid.
Those Chinese who cannot afford to pay bribes to such officials would naturally suffer.
“A notorious example is Xu Zongheng, the mayor of Shenzhen between 2005 and 2009,” Hartmann relates. “He has been charged with buying his position and taking bribes adding up to two billion yuan (US $300 million).”
Another major complaint against the regime comes from people who have been turned out of their homes or forced off their land with little compensation by officials who intend to put the property to more profitable use. An indication of the extent of the frustration felt by such unfair treatment at the hands of Chinese bureaucrats manifested itself in a well-known and horrifying incident in Henan province in 2009. A worker seeking compensation from his employer, Hartmann writes, cut his chest open to prove he had a “work-related lung illness.”
Another telling incident and one that made world headlines, the poison baby formula scandal in 2008, was also not spared Chinese officialdom’s insensitivity. The chief activist for the parents touched by the tragedy that took the lives of six infants and caused serious illnesses in 300,000 others was put in jail. For his advocacy to ensure the parents received compensation, Zhao Linhai, a Chinese dissident and former Food Safety Worker, received a two and a half year sentence for “disturbing social order.” He was, however, released early for medical reasons. The chemical that caused the deaths, melamine, was still being found in Chinese dairy products as recently as last year.
Like in the Middle East, rising food prices are a major factor behind people’s discontent in China. Foodstuffs rose 29 per cent globally last year and 10.3 percent in China. A dramatic increase in the size of the Chinese middle class in recent years is partially responsible for this price rise, since this increased prosperity has caused food demand to increase. But food costs are expected to go even higher in China this year, as the country experienced a severe drought in grain-growing areas.
Inflation is also a major problem. China’s consumer price index last month was 4.9 per cent higher than in January of last year. On Sunday, the day China’s “Jasmine Revolution” was supposed to begin, the Chinese government announced a price hike in gasoline and diesel fuel. The Wall Street Journal reports this increase follows one made only last December.
It was reported the Chinese government is so concerned about the unrest in the Middle East spreading to China that the Propaganda Department told the country’s news editors they could only use dispatches about events there from the country’s official news agency. Chinese using the Internet have also been forbidden to discuss Egypt on their version of Facebook and Twitter. But the best indication of how serious the government is taking the possibility of unrest was reported by columnist Willy Lam. For the first time, a senior Chinese government official visited “the Bureau of Letters and Complaints to talk to petitioners who have grievances against the government on different levels.” And that official was no less a personage than Premier Wen Jiabao.
“To forestall anti-government riots in China, the CCP leadership has the past several weeks spotlighted the “close-to-the-masses persona of senior cadres,” Lam writes.
Demonstrations have been going on in China for several years now and most go unreported. But with its quick and massive reaction to Sunday’s Internet call for demonstrations and Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent talk with disgruntled citizens, the Chinese government is exhibiting not only a much greater concern, even fear, than usual about anti-government demonstrations, but also that it wants to clamp down on the unrest at its earliest manifestation. The reason for this is the Chinese leaders know that due to the Internet, the size of demonstrations can quickly become very large; large enough to topple the regime. They need look no further than Tunisia and Egypt for proof.
It is estimated there are 450 million people with access to the Internet in China, an increase of 20 per cent over the last year. It is a number that has been described as containing “a lot of angry Internet users.” They are going to get even angrier as their living standard erodes and corruption increases. And it is their Internet-charged disturbances and demonstrations that are soon going to define China and impress the world, and not China’s booming economy.