About a week after Egyptian protesters forced out President Hosni Mubarak, anonymous calls demanding a similar revolution in China appeared on Web sites hosted outside of China. The unnamed activists asked people to gather every Sunday at designated spots in 13 Chinese cities.
The Chinese government responded swiftly, rounding up prominent dissidents and installing a heavy police presence in the cities. On the following Sunday, police officers at the designated spots herded people away and detained resisters. Foreign journalists were roughed up.
That’s how the Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” has turned out so far. But while it’s true that sudden, radical change is not likely to happen in China, that’s no reason for despair: change has been under way in China for years, but in forms more subtle than most people outside the country understand.
After the government crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, it was widely assumed that Beijing had quashed any chance for meaningful dissent. But protests have become more common since then, over everything from wages and polluted land to dam-building and animal rights. They have involved workers, villagers, migrants, environmentalists and public-interest lawyers.
Protest is also increasingly common on the Internet. I recently counted 60 major cases of online activism, ranging from extensive blogging to heavily trafficked forums to petitions, in 2009 and 2010 alone. Yet these protests are reformist, not revolutionary. They are usually local, centering on corrupt government officials and specific injustices against Chinese citizens, and the participants in different movements do not connect with one another, because the government forbids broad-based coalitions for large-scale social movements.
Because of those political limits, protesters express modest and concrete goals rather than demand total change. And the plural nature of Chinese society means that citizens have sometimes conflicting interests, making it difficult to form any overarching oppositional ideology. In other words, the government allows a certain level of local unrest as long as it knows it can keep that activism from spreading.
And while the Internet has revolutionary potential, here too Chinese leaders have a firm grasp of the situation: they understand the power of the Internet much better than their Middle Eastern counterparts, and they regularly restrict access to the Web when they sense that unrest is gaining momentum.
At the same time, they are careful not to cut off access completely, knowing that could backfire against them as well as damage the Chinese economy.
What outsiders often miss, however, is the response to that strong government control. Activists who understand the possibilities and limits of political opposition in China have developed new forms of online and offline mobilization.
For example, using the Internet to rapidly organize informal “strolls,” rather than formal protests, is part of a broader trend of contemporary activism in which Chinese activists challenge, embarrass or shame the authorities through provocation rather than direct confrontation.
This kind of activism is effective: even as the government tightens control, it also takes steps to mollify public concerns. To demonstrate his awareness of pressing social issues, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, has gone online three times over the last two years to talk with Chinese Web users. And new laws and policies are constantly introduced to tackle the issues raised by activists: barely a year after a scandal involving tainted milk, for instance, China instituted its first food safety law.
Yet rather than resolving the underlying sources of instability, the government all too often offers short-term, superficial solutions, which are more likely to sweep the problems under the carpet or dam them up. The introduction of the food safety law, for example, has so far failed to solve the country’s serious food safety problems.
What’s more, the energy and resources Beijing puts into maintaining control — its 2011 budget commits more money to internal security than to the military — means that little effort is being devoted to real reform.
There is always the possibility that, if these trends continue, the gaps between reality and people’s expectations will boil over into more aggressive, organized activism. But given the complex dynamic between the Chinese state and public activists, it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.
Guobin Yang, an associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard and the author of The Power of the Internet in China.