In China, Activists Watch and Cheer

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The following piece, by CHRD’s International Director Renee Xia, originally appeared on the Wall Street Journal website on March 12, 2011. It is available there at


The pro-democracy movement finds hope in the Middle East, even as the regime cracks down on dissent


By Renee Xia

Since late December, Chinese pro-democracy and human-rights activists have watched, cheered and agonized over the events unfolding in the Arab world. There has been a surge of online traffic, with Chinese activists sharing links to blog posts, photos and YouTube videos in order to show solidarity with protesters in the Middle East. When Hosni Mubarak stepped down, one Chinese Twitter feed declared, “Today, we’re all Egyptians!”

Online calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China first appeared on Twitter shortly thereafter and were followed by details about the proposed protests on the overseas Chinese Web portal The calls drew small crowds of onlookers and foreign journalists on Feb. 20 and 27 in designated locations in Beijing and Shanghai, but those who gathered were outnumbered by the police, who dispersed them quickly. Many activists had been warned to stay away; others were forced to go on “sightseeing” trips, put under surveillance or house arrest, or detained.

Still, the events in Tunisia and Egypt were immensely encouraging. As one activist explained to me, “The Middle Eastern protests soundly rejected the claims that countries with Islamic traditions cannot embrace democracy and that people in developing countries only desire material subsistence.” For activists in China, the revolution in the Arab world has rendered obsolete the familiar argument that democracy is unsuited to certain cultures.

The Chinese, especially young people, are no less wired than their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, and they are deft at climbing over the “Great Firewall” erected by government censors. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are banned in China, but activists find ways to use them. More important and popular are domestic social-media services like QQ and

As news broke about the Middle East, the authorities moved quickly to block messages containing “Egypt” or “Mubarak” or the Chinese folk tune “What a Beautiful Jasmine Flower” (adopted by Puccini for his opera Turandot), and the police have traced Tweets, blog posts and QQ chats to track activists down. But it’s no longer possible for the authorities to completely stop the spread of information among China’s more than 400 million “netizens.” Two weeks ago, I posted comments on the killing of protesters in Libya on my micro-blog on So far, 61 users have forwarded these comments, and none of them has been deleted by censors.

Chinese activists have emphasized the parallels between Tunisia and Egypt and the situation in China. They point to rampant official corruption, social injustice and the lack of both outlets for popular grievances and fair procedures for seeking remedies. “Many people may no longer live under absolute poverty,” one activist told me, having recently returned from extensive travels in China’s hinterland. “Yet they have a more acute sense of injustice than in Mao’s egalitarian society. Improved mobility allows them to witness growing disparities.”

Many activists were encouraged by the spontaneous self-organization of the sympathy protests in Beijing and Shanghai. The government cannot find the key organizers because there may not be any. Anyone who re-Tweeted, blogged, chatted online or forwarded emails may have transmitted the call to action, thus helping to spark the rallies. As one activist with deep experience in social media said, “This gives us great hope, because we know that this seemingly omnipotent regime has something to fear.”

Indeed, the Chinese government has moved swiftly to boost the power of its police apparatus. On March 5, the Ministry of Finance announced a 2011 budget for “maintaining stability” of close to $95 billion, up 21.5% from 2010. To put this in perspective, the 2011 budget for external defense—that is, the military—is less than $92 billion.

At some point, the Chinese authorities might consider the drastic step of cutting off Internet access altogether, but this would be like picking up a boulder and dropping it on their own feet. When the Mubarak government closed down Internet connections in Egypt for five days last month, it drove more youth from online social networks to Tahrir Square and alienated many middle-class professionals who rely on the Internet for everyday transactions. China’s export-driven economy depends on the Internet, and the Chinese government bases its claims of legitimacy on the economy’s continuing growth.

Despite substantial economic growth (and often because of the inequalities created by that growth), visible discontent is growing in China. According to Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, roughly 90,000 demonstrations—protesting corruption, unfair wages, forced evictions, land grabs, pollution and food safety—took place annually in China from 2004 to 2009.

The Chinese people have not yet turned Tiananmen Square into Tahrir Square, but China’s impersonal one-party rule is not so different from other dictatorial regimes that have collapsed in recent decades under the weight of popular demands for political participation. “The Chinese are materially better off today,” said one dissident who lives under soft detention in Beijing, but “this makes them more, not less, determined to express their opinions and to have their say in decision-making.” That is why, he explained, “we are experiencing one of the harshest crackdowns in more than a decade.”

—Ms. Xia is the international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

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