Monday, February 7, 2011

Why China won't be the next Egypt, yet!

The year of the rabbit brought out the dark traits of this rather timid animal in the Chinese government soon after protests erupted in Egypt. According to one analysis of the Chinese zodiac sign; 'at his worst, the Rabbit is too imaginative, oversensitive or just acidly indifferent. He avoids coming into contact with human suffering or misery, as though it were some highly contagious disease.'
And it seems that exactly what the high profile Publicity/Propaganda department  (PD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) is doing today - distancing itself from human suffering in Egypt for fear it might be contagious.
While twitter, face book and you tube are banned in China since 2009, the Chinese youth have found ways of breaking through firewalls and accessing them. In cyber cafes in Chongqing, I noticed how some teenagers used proxy sites to access everything that was supposedly off limits. 'It's not that difficult if you know where to go to access it,' a young girl with pink highlights and piercings told a friend in Cantonese. She is particularly curious about life outside China and enjoys meeting people from the West. There are millions of such people across China keen to connect with the 'outside' world.
China also home grown versions of twitter like Sina Weibo which are very popular. But now searching for 'Egypt/Cairo' etc now bring up a message: “according to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results have not been displayed”.
The Communist Party, just  like the rabbit, 'may assume an outer air of indifference to the opinions of others, but he actually withers under criticism'. Hence they maintain a very strong hold on what gets published in the media and in a way direct any discussion on what they seem 'appropriate'. Of course, it's not appropriate to talk about people's protests, democracy, bringing down the rule of the land etc and the government will do everything it can to prevent even the air of defiance reach the Chinese people.
So journalist friends in China tell me that the government has 'ordered' the Chinese media to only carry news sent by Xinhua (official news agency) which is well screened and sometimes even written by the PD ensuring its reports are 'safe' for the people to know.
China daily, one of the country's largest English daily only carries dispatches from Xinhua. One such today, highlights how the Egyptian government was trying to restore calm and economic life in Cairo but protestors refused to listen. I have been told that PD stresses the need to carry reports on the livelihood lost and other economic losses in Egypt due to these protests. With a large income disparity in China and with millions of people under the poverty line, the PD probably believes that such reports would nip any thoughts of rebellion in the bud.
 Another 'approved' report is the government efforts to bring back stranded Chinese tourists. Newspapers and television stations have been warned that any sympathy with the protestors in Egypt will not be tolerated and news of any rebellious feelings in China a total taboo. As always these instructions are 'secret' but it is no secret in China who controls the media.
As a foreign journalist I met many officials in China who have steered that same line. They speak about an 'open' media yet they keep a short leash on what comes out in the main Chinese media. While they cannot stifle the voices of foreign journalist they do try their best to keep them to the minimum.
However, what I do find striking in China is the huge population of people that support the government, adhere to their communist principles and strongly believe that the government cares for them when they look at the high growth and economic progress China had made in recent years. It has fuelled expectations yet creating huge disparities in its population.  

I do think that government does care for 'its people' but only when they know it  is good for them. I was quite pleased with the quick response of the government during the Sichuan earthquake a couple of years ago. The officials in Beijing were forthcoming with their responses and put no restrictions on what I reported. It was a natural tragedy and the government were looked upon as saviour of people then and they did their bit to prove it right.
Yet I saw them often tight lipped and rather ruthless during the Tibetans protests. The ethnic divide in China is strong and only people of the ethnic majority Han hold their unnerving loyalties to the government. Ethnic minorities are still struggling to trust the government. Earlier too, in 2009 after the ethnic clashes in Xinjiang, the government ensured that for months there was no use of the internet and people were unable to make international calls or send text messages. They wanted to isolate Xinjiang and prevent the news of atrocities from reaching the outside world.
The PD is so powerful in China that it can edit and censor even the speeches made by its Premier. Wen Jiabao comments on 'political reforms'  in his speech during a visit to the United States in 2010 were censored and omitted from every media report in China.
Also when Chairman Mao's personal secretary and a former member of the CPC's Central Committee, Li Rui called for China to allow free speech and to abolish state control of the media, little did he realize that an essay that he had written for the People's Daily (China's party newspaper) in 1981, had been deleted from a recent book by the PD.
So anyone who calls for political reforms finds himself face the PD's axe. When these 'powerful' men of China cannot speak about political reforms, what hope do the people have?
Also the memory of Tiananmen square is still alive. In 1989, several hundred civilians mostly students were shot dead by the Chinese army during protests for democracy. It's been over two decades, yet when you walk down Tiananmen square, the story still haunts you. You would occasionally catch a glimpse of an old man holding onto the Chinese flag paying tribute to lives lost in muted silence. You still cannot raise a voice in China for fear of a repetition.
I hope it may be possible for the winds of change to someday soon penetrate the great firewall of China and empower its people to stand up for political reforms. Yet, I'm afraid it won't happen too soon.
China and Egypt (with Tunisia) are excellent examples to understand Thomas Jefferson  words:  'When the people fear their government- there is tyranny; when the government fears the people- there is liberty.'

More on China on

No comments: