Arab Spring, Chinese Winter

Just after the streets of Tunisia and Egypt erupted, China saw a series of “Jasmine” protests—until the government stopped them cold. Its methods were subtler than they had been at Tiananmen Square, and more insidious. Was the regime’s defensive reaction just paranoia? Or is the Chinese public less satisfied—and more combustible—than it appears?

People who could afford VPNs, including most foreigners and many in the Chinese elite, could view Internet censorship as a problem for the country but not personally for them. And most people assumed that this loophole would always stay open—how could universities or corporations do business otherwise? Even the man known in China as the father of the Great Firewall, a computer scientist (and university president!) named Fang Binxing, made waves in February by telling a leading Chinese newspaper that he kept six VPNs running on his computers at home.

That report was soon pulled from the paper’s Web site—and at about that same time, serious disruption of VPN activity began. For a while I thought something was wrong with my computer. I’d try to get my e-mail, or to go to a foreign news site—and after a few minutes of waiting, I would realize that the connection was simply not ever going to get through. Part of the Great Firewall’s power is that you don’t see a message saying “access denied.” Things just … don’t work, and you can’t be sure why. But officials from VPN companies said they were being targeted, in a way they’d never experienced before. “The Klingon Empire scored a couple of solid hits on the USS Enterprise,” the CEO of one of the leading VPNs, Witopia, wrote to his customers in March (along with discreet tips on new ports and connections to try).

The VPN disruption seemed worst on weekends and was sometimes an absolute blackout for hours on end. My own theory, which no one I interviewed could disprove, was that this was a proof of concept for the security agencies—a demonstration that they could cut off channels to the outside world immediately, if the need arose. But even when the system was turned back on, the Internet in much of China was hobbled. If you have spent time in South Korea, Japan, or Singapore, you know that broadband systems there make the typical U.S. “high-speed” connection seem pokey. But China’s Internet controls can seem like a return to the days of 1,200-baud dial-up access. After each Web click, it could take five, 10, 30 seconds for a page to appear. “Anyone bullish about China should come and try to use the internet here,” an American graduate student named Matt Schiavenza wrote in a frustrated tweet this year. (Twitter, like Facebook and Blogger and many Google services, is unusable in China without a VPN.) Or, as the head of a foreign tech company wrote to me in an e-mail early this year, “Ultimately, if they want to take the country’s internet connections ‘Third World,’ none of us can prevent that.”

After the Japanese earthquake in March, Bill Powell, a writer for Time who had gone to Fukushima from his base in Shanghai, told me about a site, AllThingsNuclear.org, whose information he considered most reliable and up-to-date. When Powell returned to China, he found that this site too was blocked by the Great Firewall. “What are they afraid of?” he wrote in a Web posting. “Or is the answer simply that these days, they are afraid of EVERYTHING?”

What the central Chinese leadership might be afraid of, and why, is the central political question about China now. The hair-trigger defensiveness of the government’s response resembles that of a tottering Arab Spring regime, while overall the nation’s prospects could not seem more different from, say, Egypt’s. Economically, countries throughout the North Africa/Middle East crescent have been stagnant. China, as you might have heard, has been an economic success. Qaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali, and others have governed as if they had a lifetime hold on power. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were not elected by the public, but they will give up power after two terms.

Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and the like have discontented reserve armies of unemployed young men. Because of its one-child policy, China has, if anything, a shortage of young women and men, relative to the retirees they will have to support. This March, as the Chinese crackdown intensified, the Pew Global Attitudes Project released the results of surveys the previous year in China and Egypt, among other places. The contrast was stark. Twenty-eight percent of Egyptians were “satisfied” with their country’s direction, down from 47 percent a few years earlier; 87 percent of Chinese were satisfied, up from 83 percent. Only 23 percent of Egyptians were optimistic about their own life prospects over the next five years, versus 74 percent of Chinese (and 52 percent of Americans). Surveys in China can be suspect, and Pew notes in the fine print that its Chinese survey sample was “disproportionately urban,” under-weighting China’s rural poor. Still, the general impression that most people in China buy into the prevailing system rings true.

Why, then, has the government reacted as if the country were on the brink of revolt? Do the Chinese authorities know something about their country’s realities that groups like Pew have missed, and therefore understand that they are hanging by a thread? Or, out of reflex and paranoia, are they responding far more harshly than circumstances really require, in ways that could backfire in the long run?

While in China and afterward, I asked everyone I could: Is the government eerily perceptive, or destructively obtuse? There’s no proof on either side, but here are the arguments for each view.

Those who think the government has good reason to be worried say that the accumulated tensions—political, economic, environmental, and social—of China’s all-out growth have reached an unbearable extreme. By this interpretation, the seeming satisfaction of the Chinese public is a veneer that could easily crack. “If one were to read only the Party-controlled media, one might get the impression that China is prosperous, stable, and headed for an age of ‘great peace and prosperity,’” Liu Xiaobo himself wrote, in an essay shortly before he was arrested. (The English version, translated by Perry Link of Princeton, will appear this fall in a collection of Liu’s essays and poems, No Enemies, No Hatred.) He continued:

Not only from the Internet, but from foreign news sources as well as the internal documents of the regime itself—its ‘crisis reports’—we know that more and more major conflicts, often involving violence and bloodshed, have been breaking out between citizens and officials all across China. The country rests at the brink of a volcano.

By June of this year, a wave of bombings, riots, and violent protests at widely dispersed sites across the country illustrated what Liu was warning about. The trigger of the uprisings varied city by city—ethnic tensions in some areas, beatings by police or chengguan in others—but they added to a mood of nationwide tension. “With rampant official corruption, inflation, economic disparity, and all sorts of social injustice and political tensions, the threat to the CCP rule is very much real,” Cheng Li, who grew up in Shanghai and is now a specialist in Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, told me this summer.

Five years ago, in his book China’s Trapped Transition, Minxin Pei argued that China would be hitting a limit of its current economic growth scheme in about seven years’ time, or about now. Pei, who is also originally from Shanghai and is now at Claremont McKenna College, in California, said that China’s state-led development model would work wonderfully—up to a point. The same traits that made the country a miracle of the infrastructure-and-cheap-exports era would handicap it, he said, when it had to compete in higher-value industries and jobs, as it is now trying to do.

“If you were sitting in Hu Jintao’s office, you would see the protests, the ethnic tensions,” he told me recently, “and you might think, ‘If we are not tough enough, things could quickly get out of control.’” From the central authorities’ point of view, according to Pei, there is one clear lesson of Tiananmen Square: “They have learned from past experience in 1989 that you have to be very tough at the beginning, to nip things in the bud. It is much better to have overkill than underkill.”

I heard similar sentiments from people now working in China, Chinese and foreign alike. For instance, a well-known economist in China, who asked not to be named, said that the government was worried precisely because it understood the difficulties of the economic adjustments ahead. “There is increasing awareness of how out-of-control the growth model has become, and it will require a sharp adjustment involving a growth slowdown,” this person said. “The more aware the leaders are of the strains in the economy, the more worried they are about the difficulty of the adjustment”—mainly through layoffs, bankruptcies, and other economic shocks.

If, months or years from now, the volcano should explode and the veneer of control should crack, it will be easy to find evidence that this was inevitable all along. When I asked an academic at one of China’s leading universities how he would explain the government’s harshness, he wrote in an e-mail that the level of public discontent was extreme:

It is hard to get anyone in Beijing under the age of 30 to indicate anything but contempt for the government, and I suspect this is true in a lot of other cities. There really is a sense among young people and college students that everyone is grabbing everything they can, and it is noteworthy that princelings [children of senior party leaders] no longer want to be investment bankers but rather want to be private equity investors. In other words, getting paid millions for your connections isn’t interesting anymore. Owning the whole lot is better.

Premier Wen Jiabao is seen as the big-hearted “grandpa” of China, always the first to visit disaster scenes. His son, Winston Wen, has an M.B.A. from Northwestern and has worked in private equity.

The other view is that the situation in China is indeed tense—but that it has always been tense, and that so many people have so much to lose from any radical change, that the country’s own buffering forces would contain a disruption even if the government weren’t cracking down so hard.

The main reason is that for all the complaints and dissatisfactions with today’s Communist rule, there is no visible alternative—in part, of course, because the government has worked so hard to keep such alternatives from emerging. This is a less satisfying side of the argument to advance. You look worse if you turn out to be wrong, and it seems unimaginative to say that an uneasy status quo might go on indefinitely. Still, it is what I would guess if forced to choose.

I asked Chas Freeman what he made of China’s current turmoil. He is a former diplomat who served as Richard Nixon’s interpreter during his visit to China in 1972. Because Freeman was working during the discussions between Nixon and Zhou Enlai, he knows that one of the most famous stories about Zhou is not true. Half the commencement speakers in America have quoted Zhou’s alleged response when asked whether the French Revolution had been a success: “Too soon to tell.” Ah, those far-seeing Chinese! In fact, Freeman points out, Zhou was not talking about the French Revolution of 1789. He was talking about the upheavals that began in France in 1968 and had not fully simmered down by the time he and Nixon talked.

When it came to contemporary China, Freeman said that he takes seriously the complaints about economic inequality, ethnic tension, and other potential sources of instability. But, he said, they remind him of conversations he had when living in Taiwan in the 1970s, before Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang party had moved from quasi-military rule to open elections. “People would say they are corrupt, they have no vision, they have a ridiculous ideology we have to kowtow to, but that no one believes in practice,” he told me. “And I would say, ‘If they’re so bad, why don’t you get rid of them?’ That would be greeted with absolute incredulity.” Taiwanese of that era would tell him that, corrupt or not, the party was steadily bringing prosperity. Or that there was no point in complaining, since the party would eliminate anyone who challenged its rule. The parallel with mainland China was obvious. A generation later, Taiwan had become democratized.

Conceivably, that is what another generation might mean for the mainland—especially if the next wave of rulers are less hair-trigger about security, and more concerned about the lobotomizing effects on their society of, for instance, making it so hard to use the Internet. Which in turn is part of a climate that keeps their universities from becoming magnets for the world’s talent, which in turn puts a drag on China’s attempts to foster the Apples, Googles, GEs of the future. We don’t know, but we can guess that whatever China’s situation is, a generation from now, we will be able to look back and find signs that it was fated all along. “People predicted the fall of the Chinese Communist Party in 1989, and it didn’t happen,” Perry Link told me. “People did not predict the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and it did happen. I’m sure that whatever happens in China, or doesn’t, we will be able to look back and say why.” If only it were possible to do that now.

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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