Something big is happening in China, and it started soon after the onset of the “Arab Spring” demonstrations and regime changes first in Tunisia and then in Egypt: the most serious and widespread wave of repression since the Tiananmen Square crackdowns 22 years ago. Of course, “worst since Tiananmen Square” does not mean “as bad as Tiananmen Square.” As the government has taken pains to ensure, there have been no coordinated nationwide protests so far, and troops from the People’s Liberation Army, in their instantly recognizable green uniforms, have not played the major role that they did then in containing dissent. Instead, enforcement around the country has been left mainly to regular police, typically in their dark-blue uniforms; the much-feared “urban management” patrols known as chengguan, also in dark blue; large reserve armies of plainclothesmen; and many other less visible parts of the state’s internal-security apparatus, which now has a larger budget than China’s regular military does.
Unlike in 1989, for most people in most of the country, life and business since the beginning of the Arab Spring have hummed along relatively normally. The main domestic concerns in China at the moment are rapid inflation, especially in food prices; a severe long-term nationwide drought (broken by occasional severe localized flooding), which has threatened farms in the country’s normally wet southern provinces and brought Dust Bowl conditions to parts of the normally dry north; and widening scandals and public fear about tainted food supplies. In May, a report based on figures from the Chinese Ministry of Health showed that cancer had become the country’s leading cause of death, which is an unusual and revealing distinction. In poorer countries, infectious diseases are usually the main killers; in richer ones, heart disease and other consequences of a sedentary, wealthy lifestyle. The rising prevalence of cancer, including in “cancer villages” near factories or mines in China’s still-poor countryside, was taken even by Chinese commentators as another indication of the urgency of dealing with the environmental consequences of the country’s nonstop growth. For modern China, though, all of these are familiar concerns.
A set of less familiar problems developed with amazing speed early in the year. In mid-January, Hu Jintao met Barack Obama in Washington, on what would be Hu’s last official visit to the United States. In a little more than a year, Hu will finish his second five-year term as president and relinquish the job, presumably to anointee/Vice President Xi Jinping. The meetings in Washington were as constructive and positive-toned as such events can be. Obama gave Hu the gala White House state dinner (which my wife and I attended) that he had notably not received on his previous American visit: five years earlier, George W. Bush had offered Hu only a lunch at the White House, an omission the more startling given the standard Chinese practice of building even the most trivial business meeting around a celebratory banquet. Officials from both sides noted their areas of political and economic disagreement (arms sales to Taiwan, status of the Dalai Lama, etc.) but also signed numerous cooperative agreements, in fields ranging from clean-energy research to student exchanges and increased military interactions. President Ben Ali had been forced from power in Tunisia just days before Hu Jintao traveled to Washington. The Tahrir Square protests against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt began just after Hu returned to Beijing, and were soon followed by the uprisings in Jordan, Yemen, Syria, and Libya. The spread of protest from one Arab-Islamic country to its neighbors might have seemed predictable. Less so was the effect in China.