Thursday, June 16, 2011

China's 'Jasmine Revolution'

China's 'Jasmine Revolution' was discussed at the last Bluestocking discussion group. In February Chinese activists followed the lead of Egypt and Tunisia by calling for democracy protests in major Chinese cities. These online calls appeared to originate from websites run by exiled Chinese activists. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responded to such campaigns in a zealous manner by blocking results to online searches of 'Jasmine Revolution', limiting coverage of the protests in the Middle East, beating up foreign journalists attempting to cover the protests, and detaining iconic activists without charge. The most high-profile of these detainees is Ai Weiwei, artist and artistic consultant for the 'Bird's Nest' stadium for the Beijing Olympics, who was detained at Beijing International Airport on April 3rd on allegations of 'economic crimes' however it remains unclear whether he has been formally charged. All of these are trademark methods of the CCP to clampdown on potential challengers however its use of these tactics all at once highlights its paranoia in this instance.

Given the extreme response of the Chinese government to the calls for protests, it is unsurprising that it appears as though protests did not take place at all. Some protestors adapted their calls by asking people to simply "stroll" past a designated building at a particular time but without drawing attention to the fact that they were protesting, however a strong policy presence (both uniformed and plain-clothed) on designated streets kept people moving and prevented any such protest from being identifiable from regular crowds in busy city areas. Following the first week of attempted protests, a construction site appeared on the most high-profile of the designated streets, Beijing's Wangfujiang, and blocked off much of it, apparently to correct the pavement sinking.

The CCP's harsh crackdown on activists does not sit well with the growing responsibilities that have accompanied its economic rise. For China to become a leader on the international stage, it cannot respond to civil unrest with the same methods that were prevalent in its darker days. Meanwhile, the substantial differences between China and Middle Eastern countries undergoing political upheavals are apparent, and hence it is unlikely that China will undergo the same experience. Furthermore, the CCP's brutal history of clamping down on civil unrest has discouraged the population from openly challenging its leadership.

So how do we account for the CCP's paranoia? Was it perhaps just the unfortunate timing of the protests around the National People's Congress which made the CCP more sensitive? Was it a result of divisions within the Party, where conservative cliques have clashed with more liberal actors, and the crackdown was a backlash against the views of the latter gaining ground within and outside of the Party? Or was it simply a miscalculation on behalf of the CCP, fuelled by the growing number of protests across the country against a myriad of issues, including endemic corruption amongst lower-level officials, environmental degradation, growing inequality, and rising living costs? Whatever the trigger, it is clear that China will not undergo a political upheaval similar to that seem in the Middle East. The CCP has spoken of political reform for many decades now and it is likely that it will continue to do so, moving at its own pace rather than one dictated by China's citizens.