Jasmine Revolution and censorship in China

By Yo Tong on March 3, 2011
US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, left, was present at the gathering spot of the “Jasmine Revolution” in Beijing. Some Chinese right-wing nationalist netizens used it as proof of foreign backings of the recent popular uprisings.

The Jasmine Revolution in the Arab world is reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. The scene of thousands of Egyptians gathering in Tahrir Square before the downfall of Hosni Mubarak was resonant with the aspirations of Chinese youngsters who demonstrated in Tiananmen Square before the bloody crackdown by the communist regime. More recently, the defiant remarks by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on 22 February were also redolent of a time long past for current generations of Chinese people:

When Tiananmen Square happened, tanks were sent in to deal with them. It's not a joke. Do whatever it takes to stay united... People in front of tanks were crushed. The unity of China is more important than those people in Tiananmen Square. - (Gaddafi on China)

Beijing authorities are certainly aware of the threat posed by this new, internet-driven revolution. After the Chinese State Council Information Office ordered all media sources in the country to follow the guide of Xinhua News Agency’s information regarding the Egyptian uprising on January 28th, internet censors were quick to block internet searches for the keyword “Egypt”. Xinhua News is the official press agency of the government of the People's Republic of China and is subordinate to the PRC State Council.

Libyan unrest was not a top priority in recounting the facts: Chinese media mainly focused on the government’s evacuation of its citizens as well as the economic loss of Chinese companies in the former Italian colony. The more up-to-date stories, such as the remarks by Muammar Gaddafi, and analyses of the social turmoil took a minor if not negligible role, according to search results from Baidu, a prominent Chinese search engine.

When the first calls arose via the internet for a “Jasmine Revolution” to take place in various Chinese cities, authorities took bold preventive actions to stamp out the possibility of such a gathering. More than 20 mainland cities, including Tianjin, Chengdu and Guangzhou, stepped up security measures. In Beijing, police were deployed outside a McDonald's on Wangfujing pedestrian shopping street, the gathering spot of the “Revolution”. The crowd was dispersed within an hour.

The word “jasmine“ was also blocked as a search keyword by Chinese authorities. China Mobile and China Unicom, two major mobile communication service providers in China, as well as Sina Microblog, China’s Twitter-like service, disabled the function to send messages en-masse according to reports by Mingpao, a Chinese newspaper in Hong Kong.

A number of Chinese rights activists have been put under police custody while several foreign journalists, including a Bloomberg news reporter in Beijing, were assaulted by police who were deployed near the “Jasmine Revolution’s” gathering spot. Around one thousand people have been detained or gone missing, according to the Pro-democracy watchdog Information Center for Human Rights & Democracy.

In spite of the heavy-handed reaction by the Chinese Communist regime, Wang Dan, the Chinese, Harvard educated and pro-democracy leader during the June 4th Tiananmen Square protests, was optimistic about the prospects of the “Chinese Jasmine Revolutions.” Wang pointed out in his Twitter messages that low turnouts do not imply the weakness of such a  revolution. Rather, the Communist Party is nervous of the catalyst of events that have been taking place. He pointed out in a Facebook message that this nervousness was exposed to the international community and Sunday's campaign was a very successful “test and drill” for future gatherings of the “true power of the people.”

On the other hand, Niwa Uichiro, Japanese ambassador to China who is said to have strong personal ties there, argued that there is no chance a “Jasmine Revolution” could topple the Communist Party as the Chinese people do not want to destroy their current living standards achieved by rapid economic growth in past years.

The fundamental question to be asked is whether the “Chinese Model” of stringent, preemptive control over its own people is sustainable when the country’s economy starts to lose its steam.

In 2009, expenditure for public safety in China increased by 16% and then again by 8.9% in 2010, to a whopping 514 billion Renminbi (RMB), the official currency of the People's Republic of China. This was equivalent to 8.8% of China’s Gross Domestic Product. These figures were on par with the 532 billion RMB expense for national defense, according to a report published by Tsinghua University’s Department of Sociology last year. The report warned that if the Chinese government’s current hardline approach to dealing with social tensions and conflicts is not changed, “Stability Maintenance” costs will become an increasingly heavier burden.

Financial strain due to governmental suppression has become apparent in numerous cities and counties. According to one of the most popular weekly newspapers in China, Southern Weekly (Nanfang Zhoumo), in the Jinshan District of Southern Shanghai, the total expenditure for law enforcement from 1996 to 2006 reached 12.47 trillion RMB. This is equivalent to 5.6% of the local government’s total budget. Law enforcement costs in Jinshan increase annually at an average rate of 17.34%.

In Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province in southern China, “Stability Maintenance” costs reached 4.4 billion RMB in 2007 – a lot more than the municipal government’s social welfare budget of 3.52 billion RMB. In Jinshi City, Hunan Province, the local government ordered all administrative bureaus to cut spending by 20% in order to secure funding for “Stability Maintenance” costs, writes Southern Weekly.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the target GDP over the next five years will be slowed from 8% to 7% in an effort to change China’s export driven economy to one of domestic consumption. He informed his netizens during a live chat that the move is aimed to reduce inflation, thus increasing the Chinese standard of living. Although China became the world’s second biggest economy last year, the Chinese per capita income remains far lower than Japan’s and South Korea’s according to the CIA’s World Factbook.

If Chinese exports were indeed to decrease, their Orwellian approach to freedom and human rights might face severe challenges in terms of fiscal feasibility.