On Saturday, an anonymous letter circulated online calling for Chinese people to follow after the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and launch a “Jasmine Revolution” in 13 different cities in China. The McDonald’s at Wangfujing in Beijing was one of the locations.
(I have to say that this choice of the location is beyond my understanding. First, since Wangfujing is one of the most populated shopping center in town, how do you tell who is protesting and who is shopping? Second, McDonald’s? Really? The revolution may or may not be televised, but apparently that didn’t stop us from soliciting corporate sponsors. Too bad Groupon blew their ad budget on the Super Bowl.)
In the end, there were a lot of police and a handful of foreign correspondents. Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell the protesters, because they didn’t show.
Later there were rumors that some university officials checked dorms to make sure students stayed away from the “revolution.” And according to AP, dozens of activists throughout China were placed under house arrest and warned about participating in any protests that may or may not be planned for today. So it would appear that the government took it seriously.
The question is: Why?
Did anyone really think a couple of posts on Boxun was was going to start a revolution? Let’s make this clear: China is not Egypt.
First of all, not all that many Chinese people actually care about Egypt or Tunisia. In fact, I know plenty of Chinese people who couldn’t find Tunisia on a map. Maybe a handful of activists, intellectuals and professionals have been paying attention to the historic events in North Africa, but most Chinese probably heard little about what happened in Egypt, let alone came to the conclusion that they should follow the Egyptian model of revolution.
Yes, China has many social problems, including corruption, unemployment and inflation, some of which may be even more severe than is the case in Egypt, but I still argue that the chances of a “Jasmine Revolution” – never mind anything on the scale of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square protests – are quite small at least for the foreseeable future. The main reason being that discontent towards the government in China hasn’t translated into meaningful opposition.
China today is different from 1989. Over the last twenty years, rapid economic growth has raised the standard of living to an unprecedentedly high level. Most families enjoy a life style that previous generations couldn’t have even imagined. For example, my mom could only afford a small piece of sugar for lunch during the Great Famine in 1960, but her daughter traveled in three continents before she turned 25. Few urban Chinese seem eager to trade their chance at prosperity for dreams of revolution.
Maybe Chinese people’s trust in their government is not as high as the 88% claimed by a recent Pew poll, but the majority of Chinese do believe that this government can lead them to a better life. Think about it: If China had fully democratic elections tomorrow, who do you think would win? It would be the CCP in a landslide.
Furthermore, this anonymous letter was spread through websites which are blocked in China. Spending 60 USD each year on a VPN in order to read articles about democracy and revolution is not a priority for many people in China. People have other things to worry about. How to buy a house? How to buy a car? How to make smart investments and find financial security? How to find a job that doesn’t require too much hard work but guarantees great benefits? This is what we think about every day.
The Tian’anmen generation – some of whom starved themselves in order to see a better future for their country — is long gone. This generation, actually my generation, keeps ourselves very busy with trying to make our lives better, and frankly…there is nothing wrong with that. This is a phase many countries and societies go through. Mao’s been dead for 35 years, is it okay if we don’t have to think about revolution every day and night?
All that said, there is a growing demand among many in China for better protection of personal property and personal interests, and this is what the government should be concerned about. Once we have achieved a level of prosperity, we want stability but we also want to be protected from losing what we have gained. The Xiamen citizens’ protest against the PX chemical plant in 2007 showed the government that people will take efficient and peaceful action to make their voices heard and to protect their homes.
Over the last few years reporting in China, I have seen many mass incidents and the root causes are usually land disputes, demolition by force, and pollution affecting peoples homes and families.
With so many people in China having access to televisions, cellphones, and the Internet, information is more available than ever before in our history. Ordinary people can learn about their rights. If their rights are violated by officials or government, they want to fight to protect them. If the government doesn’t find solutions, and fails to reform a political system that is the root cause of many of these problems, then eventually these smaller, local issues will link together and trigger national discontent, or even revolution.
But whatever happens in the future, that is not yet happening today. There is no national opposition strong enough and organized enough to brew a cup of jasmine tea, let alone lead a Jasmine Revolution.
And when (or if) it does happen, it will not be because of events in North Africa, but because China’s people took the future into their own hands.
From the archives