Why China should still care about a restive Arab World: The SinoFile
There are plenty of Bouazizi's in Beijing.
As revolutionary vanguards Egypt and Tunisia teeter between winning back their revolutions and utter chaos, China continues to censor discourse on uprisings that started two years ago.
The search terms for 'Tunisian uprising' and 'Egyptian uprising' remain blocked on Twitter-like Chinese social media site, Sina Weibo, at a time when protesters in the streets of Tunis and Cairo say they will reclaim the Arab Revolutions from the Islamist parties that now govern the same old kleptocracies with the same old sense of impunity as their dictatorial predecessors.
But why should China care? Analysts have said Beijing has nothing to fear -- Now as in 2011, jasmine doesn't seem to grow in China's administrative ecosystem.
The fact is, jasmine didn't seem to grow in Tunisia or Egypt either, before 2011 -- what, despite the chaos that rages on in restive pockets of the Arab World now, remains a game-changer in the history of international social movements.
Two years later: Still trouble in Tunis and chaos in Cairo
It appears what much of international media has termed the Arab World's 'post-revolutionary nations' aren't post-revolutionary at all.
In Tunisia, the death of prominent anti-Islamist opposition leader Chokri Belaid Wednesday has broken into massive unrest, with thousands taking to the streets and a riot disrupting Belaid's funeral today.
Various sources allege that behind the multiple gunshot wounds that killed Tunisia's hope at a viable opposition is Ennahda, the Islamist Party that rose to power in the aftermath of 23-year Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali's ouster two years ago. Others have said Ben Ali's henchmen perpetrated the crime to incriminate Ennahda on the date of Ben Ali's ouster, in a rather convoluted push to undo the achievements of the revolution.
People who support Ennahda call the rioters that have taken to the streets of Tunis since the murder vandals. They say that sectarianism and continued protest are stunting the act of national institution-building, at a time when tourism -- still the nation's bread and butter, offset by perennial chaos -- continues to falter. To be sure, police quieting chaos at a public funeral with tears gas isn't exactly an invitation to the North African nation's old friends to the North.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Cairo, countless factions are coming up against authorities, which Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has pledged to use full force to quell "illegal demonstrations." Two years down the road, and we are hearing the same words from Cairo that we -- in the international community -- heard under Mubarak.
Just as Egyptian protesters were stripped, beaten and humiliated in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), they are being stripped, beaten and humiliated now.
Looking at the kind of turmoil that exists in North Africa now, it's hard to imagine that any dissident in China would want this for their country.
So why is Beijing still keen to keep information on a two-year imbroglio on the DL?
There are many Bouazizi's in China
I was at my office in the People's Republic when I first heard Tunisians weren't respecting curfews imposed by a quaking Ben Ali administration in its final hour.
As I'm part-Tunisian, one of my co-workers at the Beijing bureau of an English-language newspaper asked me with great interest about Mohammed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor who set himself alight and started the revolutions we see people struggling with today.
I had nothing to tell her beyond recounting the footage I was seeing Online, circumventing the Great Firewall and the censorship of information on the Arab World that became more stringent when Egypt joined in the revolution.
I knew from my family that Tunis -- like other administrations -- had been a kleptocracy, that if you weren't a member of Ben Ali's party and a close acquaintance of the ruling elite, you had no real professional aspirations, as a matter of course.
Needless to say, seeing China while my mind was in Tunisia was an educational enterprise.
Telling my co-workers the story of a young, desperate man, forbidden from making an income, made her remind me, teary-eyed, of the many Chinese migrant laborers who are forced by authorities to return home from the city -- where they try to earn a living for their families in the countryside -- if they lose one of a three-piece set of identification necessary to reside in the city. They are essentially forbidden from taking their part of China's economic expansion in the booming cities of the East Coast.
When I arrived in Beijing the first time for a summer internship with a leading university's foreign studies department, my favorite pastime was to shop for counterfeit goods. On the streets of Wudaokou, the university district -- countless merchants sold socks, knock-off shoes, trinkets to the primarily Korean and Western students that crowd that neighborhood. There are even more counterfeit goods sellers on street and highway overpasses and in tunnels throughout the city.
They are there hawking their cheap goods until the police -- which generally overlook the merchants until big events like the 2008 Olympics come to town -- crack down.
That's when my favorite part about China becomes painful. Sometimes the merchants are picked up. Sometimes all their goods are confiscated. The merchants cry and scream on the streets. There's no recourse, save the occasional bribe.
My coworker in Beijing, many years after that first summer in China, pointed out -- There are many Bouazizi's in China.
Pride and precedence
Shortly after the revolutions in North Africa commenced, China seemed to join the call with momentary protests in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Western media was abuzz with articles, questioning whether Beijing would be swept up in a global movement for accountable rule.
Just today, Bill Bishop, the creator of Sinocism, a blog and newsletter on Chinese current affairs, re-posted a blog from February 8, 2011, in which he said that Egypt, if anything, would mean a stronger crackdown on the Chinese Internet:
The longer the Egyptian protests continue, and the greater the chaos and economic damage they bring, the easier the job gets for the propaganda organs in China. Egypt looks like a broken, Third World country, which is not what most Chinese aspire to. See Austin Ramzy’s article in Time Magazine–China: Why Egypt’s Uprising Hardly Stirs Chinese Citizens–for a good discussion of this point.
To the extent that the Chinese security services needed a reminder to stay vigilant, they have one. And they also have a very clear roadmap of how activists can use the Internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter to help catalyze political opposition. They will likely both increase their scrutiny of the Internet, especially “web 2.0″ services, and have even more budgetary resources allocated to their online and offline efforts. The Egypt protests will probably dash Facebook’s hopes for a China entry, no matter how much they compromise.
We see today that Bishop was correct in most respects -- censorship, even of the words "Egyptian uprising" remains, and there has since been a visibly stronger crackdown on the spread of information that could result in a strong response among Chinese.
Something the media on the pending Chinese Arab Spring neglected was that China's state apparatus for silencing dissident is much more complex and overwhelming than the methods used by Ben Ali, Mubarak, or even Assad.
As Bishop notes, the fact that revolutionary gestures persist today doesn't make the Egyptian/ Tunisian model attractive for Chinese dissidents. It's a model that involves dissolving the economic achievements of the past, at a time when many of the vocal dissidents against authorities in China decry economic exclusion. It's a model that demands a stronger toll in human sacrifice, after China has lost more than enough of its own people in similar attempts at Western-style democratization.
In this regard, Egypt's ongoing revolution acts as a cautionary tale against itself: And perhaps reminder of Chairman Mao's campaigns to 'win back' China's own revolutions, when what China apparently needed all the while was a Deng Xiaoping to rebuild.
But the very fact that China continues to censor information on ongoing social unrest in faraway North Africa proves that Tunisia and Egypt aren't too "Third World" to upset the Chinese government or resonate with Chinese people.
As for the Chinese government, which lost a great deal of business when old allies like Gaddafi left the scene in Libya, the fact that the ousters in the Middle East North Africa region were entirely unexpected -- the fact that after countless decades of the same kind of civilians spying on each other, censorship of the Internet and imprisonment and torture of dissidents, rulers were toppled -- represents an existential threat to Beijing.
That's undoubtedly why Beijing cares to keep certain search terms blocked today -- why China needs to continue to care about a restive MENA region.