Chinese Pluck: Must-Read Material on ‘Jasmine Revolution’

Amid the bad news from Libya, one really needs to be keeping an eye on China and developments there.

On February 21, a few abortive demonstrations were broken up by Chinese police, as reported by McClatchy and by Associated Press.

The People’s Daily in Beijing basically argues that the Chinese people are too stupid to understand the confusion of information on the Internet and should basically accept the fact that Xinhua will tell them what they need to know.  According to a bunch of very interesting Tweets from foreign reporters in Beijing today (too numerous to link, but I recommend Tom Lasseter’s feed as one of the best), most Chinese weren’t sure why the Internet was running so slowly today, and of course the minor demonstrations in Shanghai and Beijing got (to my knowledge) no domestic news coverage.

Gady Epstein at Forbes reflects in a thorough way on the meaning of the Jasmine story and its connection to covering China’s economy.  This is probably the best single piece of writing I’ve seen on the issue thus far, superior perhaps to Perry Link’s work.  After all, as Epstein points out, there would be severe economic impacts were China to suddenly just shut down the Internet in order to quash a nascent social network of would-be protestors.  South Korea is very wisely tooting its own horn at the moment, exemplifying all of the benefits described by U.S. SecState Hillary Clinton about Internet freedom and economic development.

Granite Studio parses things over quite well and wonders why the Wangfujing McDonalds (where I was once followed into the bathroom by an eccentric waving an old green Chinese-English dictionary and a carpenter’s pencil) would serve as the epicenter of a demonstration.

The Internet in China is being scrubbed and monitored like never before.  On February 22, an ad-hoc organization identifying itself as the “China Jasmine Group” called for weekly demonstrations in Chinese parks (Chinese version here) in a letter to the National People’s Congress.

Huanqiu Shibao seems to be focusing its attention on the Chinese who are coming home, again.

Finally, there is one’s own attitude toward all of this to be considered.  What do we in the West really want from China?  Are we all just provocateurs, voyeurs, who wish to see chaos in China simply because a messy world is more interesting (唯恐“天下”不乱)?  Is it necessary to analyze China’s response to the Egypt aftermath by predicting Xi Jinping’s downfall, and the collapse of the Chinese system, sometime after he assumes power in 2012?  It’s worth asking, even if the CCP somehow lost its mind, abandoned its strongly totalitarian principles, and allowed such an event to go forward, do we want a more liberalized China?  Could we tolerate the middle age of the PRC as a kind of neo-Tang era, when, at least as far as the myths go, China was an “open empire,” welcoming all manner of expression, of religion, of ideology?  Put another way, and seen more through the lens of internal change, are Chinese intellectuals today the actual heirs of the May Fourth Movement, or has the CCP so tightly controlled discourse that the principles of May Fourth, 1919, lie in abeyance?  And is it really good foreign policy for China in Africa to just sit back without comment, as Zhou Enlai said during the Korean War, “with folded hands”?

courtesy Huanqiu Shibao

Parlous PRC Discourse and a Dose of Self-Criticism

As we all huff and puff and, through our links and writings, somehow imagine ourselves complicit in the blowing down of the house of Mubarak, perhaps a bit of self-criticism and cooling off is in order.  Esther Penbassa gets us started with a a scathingly self-critical essay on Rue89, reminding us that Egypt hardly needed Western sponsorship or rhetorical support to accomplish its task, and that Egyptians, after all, led some rather vigorous anti-colonial movements in the mid-1950s.  This was not a completely downtrodden people that needed some Western saviour to accomplish their task.

Or, we could heed Andrian Kreye in the Suddeutscher Zeitung: beware of inflating the impact of “slactivism,” the posting of links, the imagined community.  The Internet, in other words, changes a few things, but doesn’t necessarily change everything or the most fundamental aspects of political process and change.  In a very intelligent essay which also delves deeper into the personalities around Julian Assange, particularly the German netactivist Daniel Domscheit-Berg,  Kreye writes:

Unzählige Twittermeldungen werden mit einem Mausklick weitergereicht. Solidaritätsbekundungen werden ins Netz gestellt und angeklickt. ‘Slacktivism’ nennt Morozov diesen Aktionismus am heimischen Bildschirm, ein Wortspiel aus den Begriffen Slacker (Faulenzer) und Activism (Aktivismus). Für eine wirkliche Revolution muss mehr zusammenkommen – ein kollektiver Leidensdruck, nachvollziehbare Reformideen, Kampfwille, breite Organisationsstrukturen. In den Umwälzungen in Tunesien und Ägypten bleibt das Internet deswgen nur eines von vielen Werkzeugen.

Innumerable Twitter reports can be spread with a click of a mouse.  Expressions of support can be put up and clicked on the web.  Author Morozov calls this ‘Slactivism,” a wordplay on the terms slacker and activist.  For a real revolution, much more has to come together: a collective expression of anger, comprehensible ideas for reform, the will to struggle, and clear organizational structure.  In the social upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, the Internet therefore remained only one of many implements.

Of course, in the meantime, we can rejoice: after eighteen days, the Huanqiu Shibao, the g0-to official source for Chinese readers who don’t read English and who don’t want to leapfrog the Great Firewall, has really opened up a whole new vista by including photographs of actual protesters on its main page for news from Egypt.  (The tab still talks of “chaos.”)  Of course, no comments on the stories are allowed, leaving us to grapple through keyboard patriots leaving their expressions of solidarity with Nationalist troops who executed Japanese war criminals in Shanghai in 1947.  The people have spoken!  And they support Chiang Kai-shek.

On the Events in Egypt

I ride a train some mornings, hurtling south in darkness toward the port of Tacoma, past shadowed bridges, around fields glazed with frost, through tentative and unheard bird songs.  Today, for the first time this winter, the journey ended as a portent of a sunrise began to glow behind the mountain screen in the East.

After the burning oil wells and wrenchingly uniform destruction of 2010, the year of 2011 is already ablaze with an optimism that cannot be quenched, that refuses to be contained.  Just read Pierre Haski’s missive today on Rue 89 [translation by Adam Cathcart, some Chinese terms added to the original French] :

How can one fail to be  transported by the images from Cairo? How not to share the joy of millions of Egyptians of all social classes and of all faiths who, from weakness in eighteen days, with their bare hands, have rid themselves of a dictator who had seemed so immovable, so sure of himself, that he had even been preparing for a dynastic succession?

How, too, can one fail to be impressed by this revolution — the second peaceful in the space of one month — which overthrew the presidents who had been in power for three decades, authoritarian and corrupt, protected and coddled by the Western powers for their role as a bulwark against radical Islam?

Tunisia took everyone by surprise.  But experts warned against the domino theory, stressing that Tunesia did not weigh heavy geopolitically, that Egypt remained something else … Whatever they said, the same causes have produced the same effects, and in Egypt, the largest Arab country that has always set the tone, events have shifted even faster than in little Tunisia.

These revolutions are unlike any other. No charismatic leader, no secret organization, no secret army …

Comment ne pas être transporté par les images en provenance du Caire ?  Comment ne pas partager la joie de ces millions d’Egyptiens de toutes catégories sociales et de toutes croyances qui ont abattu en dix-huit jours , à mains nues, un dictateur qui semblait inamovible, si sûr de lui qu’il se préparait même à une succession dynastique ? Comment, aussi, ne pas être impressionné par cette deuxième révolution pacifique en l’espace d’un mois, renversant des présidents au pouvoir depuis trois décennies, autoritaires et corrompus, protégés et cajolés [cajoler: 爱抚;奉承,谄媚] par les puissances occidentales pour leur rôle de rempart [rempart (n.m.): 城墙,围墙,壁垒,防御] contre l’islamisme radical ?  La Tunisie avait pris tout le monde par surprise, mais les experts avaient mis en garde contre la théorie des dominos en soulignant que ce pays ne pesait pas lourd [重的,沉重的,笨重的]  géopolitiquement, que l’Egypte c’était autre chose… Rien n’y a fait, les mêmes causes ont produit les mêmes effets, et le plus grand pays arabe, celui qui a toujours donné le « la », a basculé plus vite encore que la petite Tunisie.Ces révolutions ne ressemblent à aucune autre.  Pas de leader charismatique, pas d’organisation secrète, pas d’armée clandestine…Mais plutôt des groupes sur Facebook, des tweets, des vidéos sur YouTube, et beaucoup d’idéalisme d’une jeunesse qui aspire à vivre autrement.  Les réseaux sociaux n’ont pas « fait » la révolution , ils ont permis à une génération de s’inventer un espace de liberté virtuelle qu’elle n’a eu de cesse de vouloir faire passer dans le monde réel.

Two questions remain in the wake of the Egyptians’ exploit: What happens to the tyrant once he leaves? And what will happen in other Arab countries, of which none, absolutely none, can remain immune to the shock of events in Tunis and Cairo in particular?

…No country is immune to the cocktail that caused the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt: a thirst for freedom of youth on the world, a rejection of nepotism, corruption, censorship, the system’s in-built dumbing down…There remains the geopolitical impact of this huge event….which even shook all dictatorships, all authoritarian countries, regardless of their latitude and culture, beyond the Arab world and Islam.

J’en veux pour preuve ce magnifique message some lu surTwitter, par dessus les continents, les langues et les cultures. C’est un dissident chinois, dont l’avatar est orné d’un ruban ja

une en l’honneur du prix Nobel de la paix emprisonné Liu Xiaobo , qui retweete (retransmet) un message de Wael Ghonim , le « héros » de la jeunesse égyptienne, l’homme qui a fait basculer [摇摆;翻倒,翻转] la situation avec son intervention télévisée à sa libération de détention.

For proof of this beautiful message which transcends continents, languages and cultures, we need only read Twitter.There a Chinese dissident [the ubiquitous Michael Anti], whose avatar bears a yellow ribbon in honor of Nobel Peace imprisoned Liu Xiaobo , retweets a message from Wael Ghonim, the “hero” of youth Egyptian man who tipped the situation with his televised speech to his release from detention. His message (on the screenshot below) is clear:

« Les vrais héros sont les jeunes Egyptiens de la place Tahrir et du reste de l’Egypte. Ce message est devenu universel.

“The real heroes are the young Egyptians in Tahrir Square and the rest of Egypt. ”  This message has become universal.

Capture_decran_2011-02-11_a_17.40.01.png

As if to prove its own sense of apprehension, Xinhua covers this huge story with a five sentence press release.

Time Magazine Asia has a story on China’s strangely spotty coverage of the Egypt protests, featuring plenty of quotes from my friend Jeremy Goldkorn at Danwei.org; the China Elections and Governance page has several well-thought-out essays on the same topic.

Meanwhile, in my own current North American backyard, some prominent people have taken the opportunity to piss on the whole proceedings.  Although (like the more cerebral but as ubiquitous Thomas Friedman) most of his faux-prophetic work is neither worth listening to nor reading, occasionally it is good to get an earful of what Glenn Beck, Zeitgeist-man of the paranoid right wing, is promoting.  Today, Beck is peddling a wholesale historical revisionism whereby George W. Bush’s call for sweeping democratic change across the Middle East is completely forgotten and Barack Obama’s alleged “community organizing” strategy to turn the whole world into an Islamo-Socialist state — replete with brainwashed young footsoldiers — is placed at the root, yes, the root! of the democratic revolution in Egypt.   (Here, for the record, is what Obama said today about Egypt, calling for true democracy and encouraging young Egyptians to start businesses.)   In comparison to Mr. Beck (no advanced degrees here!) and his paranoid ravings, Xinhua’s coverage of all of this appears to be positively tactful, not to mention more accurate.  And that is saying quite a lot.

Egypt, China, and 1989

Prisms matter.  From which perspective are you watching the events in Cairo and across Egypt?  For myself, the vantage point this week has been Berlin, Germany, where the dominant hope, as the Berlin Taggesspiegel noted yesterday in a front page editorial, is that the Egyptian people will be able to establish a genuinely democratic regime.  Egypt as East Germany, 1989.

In China the perspective espoused by the state — demanded by the state — is far more anodyne.  Grudgingly, reports are published.  We might not be able to know what “the average Chinese citizen” thinks about the protests, but we can understand how the state wants folks to discuss — or not discuss — the action in Egypt.

Several excellent stories have appeared on this theme.  Most essential of all is this Wall Street Journal coverage ; The Guardian has also published a solid article on the theme of Chinese censorship of Egypt-related news.  Voice of America talks to Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.org, about the issue, and Oiwan Lam at the increasingly-essential Global Voices Online parses further the Egypt-related Chinese internet censorship.

Danwei implies that a main theme of Xinhua’s Egpyt coverage has been to focus on the pleasant efforts to get Chinese citizens home to the motherland, in keeping with today’s Chinese New Year.  What is missing in the Danwei analysis is the extent to which that even this feel-good story is being controlled.  The Huanqiu Shibao’s usually vigorous chorus of patriots seems not to be allowed to comment on the story.

Indeed, the Huanqiu Shibao has been the least restrained of all the outlets in China for covering the anti-Mubarak protests, but within the strict ideological limits of a paper whose focus on foreign affairs is ultimately subordinate to the editors at the People’s Daily.

(Which begs the question: What is the utility of having a Xinhua bureau in Egypt if the reporters are so heavily fettered by their mother state’s restrictions?  And, although even Al-Jezeera was slow to really tackle the Egypt story for fear of aggravating its own royal hosts, doesn’t this kind of lame response by Xinhua reveal unmistakably that in spite of all the hundreds of millions of yuan thrown into the notion that a world empire of Chinese media is a kind of joke?)

Huanqiu’s complete coverage of Egypt protests is currently headlined “Large-scale resistance activities emerge in Egypt.” Given Xinhua’s penchant for flashy graphics and sensationalism when the occasion calls for it, the grey tones of the page and singular lack of graphics (apart from an Egyptian flag and an old-school map of the country, there are but a handful of photos of happy Chinese waiting in the Cairo airport) is striking.  As usual, we have to read for what is not there.  And when the Huanqiu gives a series of Life magazine photos of Spring Festival in 1946 about equal billing with what could be considered a rather earth-trembling revolution in the Middle East’s most populace state, what else are we expected to do?

Happy New Year, everyone.