When Can the Chinese Expect Their Arab Spring?

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The Democracy ReportIn my Bloomberg View column this week, I ask this question, and come up with a disconcerting answer: Not too soon. I was prompted to ask this question by something Hillary Clinton told me for my Atlantic cover story on the Arab Spring, that Chinese leaders were on a "fool's errand" if they thought they could stop the wave of democracy from washing over their people. In the long run, of course, I believe democracy, or some form of representative government, will have its day in China, because I make the assumption that the Chinese are like everyone else, in that they don't want other people telling them what to do, and what to say. But for the short- to medium-term, I think the Chinese government has concocted all sorts of ways to keep their people in check:

The Chinese also possess something absent in the autocratic Middle East: A technically sophisticated and all-encompassing apparatus of speech control, manned by secret police and abetted by private industry. It's true that Iran and Syria make earnest attempts at thought-suppression, but their efforts are amateur by comparison (and they pale by comparison with their more enthusiastic efforts to curb unacceptable speech through murder.)

An accurate accounting of the number of Chinese bureaucrats whose days are devoted to scrubbing impermissible thoughts from the Internet isn't known, but Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on Chinese Internet control at the New America Foundation, says the number rises into the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

She listed for me a large number of organizations focused on speech suppression: The State Council Information Office, which has offices in every city and in every province; the propaganda department of the Communist Party; the Ministry of Public Security; the Ministry of State Security; the Ministry of Information, Industry and Technology; and the State Administration for Radio and Television. Plus, she said, private Internet companies all have departments that monitor their sites for speech deemed unacceptable by the government.

There is no sign that this system will soon come undone. And if it did, China could resort to more traditional modes of suppression: Schell describes a post-Tiananmen innovation of the Chinese system, the People's Armed Police, a million-man force entrusted with "supporting stability," as being better equipped to handle a Tiananmen-style revolt than the People's Liberation Army.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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