China’s Jasmine Revolution drew small crowds and little energy…


From Boston Review:

On April 3, 2011, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained by police just prior to boarding a flight to Hong Kong. He has been held incommunicado since. [Ed. note: He was released on June 22, after this article went to press.] Ai—known internationally as much for his far-ranging artistic projects as his criticisms of the Chinese government—is but one of many, perhaps thousands, of “troublemakers” rounded up by the Chinese government in recent months. Ai may be the most recognizable name globally, but other detainees have included rights activists, lawyers, bloggers, journalists, and academics. Some have been formally charged with “creating a disturbance” or “inciting subversion”; others have been disappeared through extra-judicial procedures.

The exact motivations behind the government’s expanding crackdown are uncertain, but it is safe to assume that images of Egypt and Tunisia loom large. Indeed, back in February and March, China too appeared caught in the undertow, with hints of a homegrown “Jasmine Revolution.” But the Jasmine Revolution drew small crowds and little energy. The dominant story soon became one of unyielding political repression and conspicuous public silence.

In the West this situation has inspired renewed focus on repression in China, with extensive coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, Le Monde, and elsewhere. At one level is concern for the detainees themselves, individuals who appear to have done nothing wrong but have been swallowed up by a criminal justice system affording them neither due process nor mercy. At a deeper level are geopolitical or even existential worries about what the Chinese government’s behavior signifies for a nation that is now a leading global power. Seemingly out of nowhere, China has emerged as the world’s fastest-growing major economy, the largest overseas holder of U.S. government debt, the largest exporter, and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. And along with jaw-dropping technological advancement in the domestic economy, China has invested in military modernization. Yet even as China becomes a nation of global caliber, it appears governed by individuals determined to play by their own rules and to respect no limits to their exercise of power.

But why should the recent detentions arouse particular anxiety? After all, it is hardly news that China is governed by an authoritarian system. Extrajudicial detentions and reflexive repression of dissent—whether real or imagined—have always been the method of authoritarian regimes. We see it today in Syria, Libya, Russia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. And we saw it just a few decades ago in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and even Mexico.

The variety of nations (and political outcomes) on this list suggests that abuse of dissenters—conspicuous in spite of overseas condemnation—is characteristic of not just sclerotic, immovable regimes, but also of authoritarian systems undergoing profound processes of change and liberalization. It would be wrong to read the current crackdown as a sign of stasis or regression. Though there has been no “Chinese Spring,” in fundamental institutional, organizational, and behavioral terms, it would be hard to describe what has transpired in China over the past twenty years as anything but a revolution.

In places such as Taiwan and South Korea, brutal crackdowns on dissent were among the last vestiges of authoritarian rule. In contemporary China that could also be true. Indeed, given the last twenty years of change, it seems not just possible but likely.

“China’s Other Revolution”, Edward S. Steinfeld, Boston Review