BEIJING - Tiananmen Square, alas, is not Tahrir Square. At least, for 2011. And yet, Colonel Gaddafi's threatening parallel between the Libyan rebellion and the (crushed) 1989 democratic revolt in China did not bring comfort to the leadership back in Beijing.
Since the early Arab uprisings, there has been a palpable edginess from Communist Party leaders, beginning with the censorship of the keywords surrounding the popular revolt in the Arab world after calls for "jasmine gatherings" circulated on the Chinese Web. We even saw the U.S. ambassador to China by pure coincidence -- in the streets of Beijing at the moment that a mini democratic rally was kicking off.
Internet activists and human rights advocates have been arrested for "subversion", after simply forwarding emails about this activity. The foreign press has also called to order. Without directly addressing the turmoil in Tunis, Cairo or Tripoli, President Hu Jintao has called for a strengthening of both censorship and the "management of social problems."
With all these signs, is there really the smell of jasmine in China,? The popular blogger and commentator Sima Nan noted that "China has no fewer difficult social problems than Egypt." He singled out the rising cost of living, the steep housing prices, high costs of medical care and education and, of course, corruption. Sima said that it is hardly absurd to think that one day the Chinese masses are bound to copy the tactics of the Egyptian protesters.
True, but the economic picture in China is very different than it is in Egypt. Moreover, as Perry Link of the University of California recently stated to Agence-France Press: "If you were to add together the fringes of the population who have been bullied or bought or indoctrinated, it would make for a formidable revolt, but they are just not well-organized enough, not enough to make China the next domino.
Even if the Chinese masses might be triggered to react to police abuse and corruption and one expropriation too many, and deeply held instincts surfaced to seek greater freedom of expression, more justice -- nevertheless, they still do not express a widespread desire to see power change hands. Here, perhaps, reveals more of a commitment to the Confucian order of things than we see in the Arab world. But perhaps more to the point: theres no denying that for a vast majority of Chinese citizens, even if at very uneven rates, living standards will improve each year. This alone greatly reduces the chances of seeing the Chinese street ablaze any time soon.
Still, several factors worry Beijing. Islam expert Gilles Kepels analysis of the structure of the first Arab implosion in Tunisia showed the way the revolt began with the mobilization of young urban poor in isolated neighborhoods, followed by unemployed university graduates, before finally hitting a middle class fed up with the arbitrariness of the regime. In China, these very same groups exist, with their own frustrations. And nothing worries Beijing more than a scenario in which these resentments one day coalesce. The security response is based on blocking any horizontal spread of these grievances, which explains the censorship of social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
The other problem Beijing sees is that the winds of revolt are blowing this time from the South. "The claims being made within Arab societies are challenging the standard anti-Western arguments, says Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University. This can weaken the claims of superiority for the "Chinese model that justifies the grip of the regime for the sake of economic efficiency, which Beijing would like to spread in developing countries." Beijings thesis, which held that the defense of certain "universal values" is just a U.S. or Western preoccupation, has been gravely undermined by those rising up in North Africa. This fact alone is charged with significance.