Don’t Dismiss a Jasmine Moment in China

Seen from this perspective, the oft-cited metric of low to no turnout of identifiable demonstrators is beside the point. In a society where information is so tightly controlled, creating a spectacle, whether of huge numbers of security forces deployed in popular shopping zones on weekends, or of foreigners being stopped and interrogated, or even the virtual spectacle of sudden, large-scale Internet dysfunction, will get a lot of Chinese people asking the question: what in the world is going on here? This amounts, in other words, to spreading the word.

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Over the last three momentous weeks or so of North African and Middle Eastern uprisings, the Western media based in China has largely stuck to a static message.

It can be summarized quickly as “China is not Egypt,” which on reflection is not so helpful. The follow-on thoughts unfortunately don’t go much further either.

Typically, they hold that people would never rise up against their rulers in today’s China, because of a long record of growth, because of what begins to sound like a cultural disinterest in politics, and because of the great efficiency of policing, among other reasons.

Lastly, and most problematically of all, there has been near unanimity in describing the response to the mysterious calls for Chinese people to emulate the peoples of the Middle East and protest in demand for change as a “failure.”

Very often, these three sets of observations or claims have come as a trifecta of conventional wisdom.

In quick response, one might caution that few had predicted the Arab world’s sudden convulsions, either. As China’s own leaders seem to appreciate very well, authoritarian states are subject to change via brusque disequilibria. As someone has noted, things are stable yesterday, they are stable today, and then suddenly tomorrow, with little forewarning, they are not stable.

I would add that cultural claims that Chinese people and hence the society are fundamentally different from people elsewhere often veer into essentialism and are at best unreliable. David Brook’s recent column about Samuel Huntington is insightful in this regard.

To be clear, the argument here is not that China is flirting with a revolutionary moment. But this does not mean that this is not an unusually important moment, and a deeply revealing one as well.

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