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?

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.

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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.

Video: James Fallows discusses the recent crackdowns with China analyst Damien Ma.

On Sunday afternoon, February 20, while Muammar Qaddafi’s troops were shooting into unarmed crowds in Benghazi, a handful of Chinese staged the first of a projected series of weekly “Jasmine” protests designed to extend the spirit of the Arab Spring protests to several major Chinese cities. The demonstration in Beijing was held in front of a McDonald’s restaurant at the Wangfujing intersection, not far from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. That day, several dozen demonstrators were matched by about the same number of foreign reporters, plus large numbers of passersby and onlookers (Wangfujing on a weekend is one of Beijing’s most jammed areas) and larger groups of uniformed and plainclothes police.

Among the onlookers was Jon Huntsman Jr. with his family. Huntsman, then in his last weeks as the U.S. ambassador to China before returning to run for the presidency, looked like a Chinese pop-culture caricature of a cool-cat American. He was wearing sunglasses—the day was cold but brilliantly clear—and a Top Gun–style brown-leather aviator jacket with a big American-flag patch on the left shoulder. He had become a well-known figure in Beijing, from his bike rides around town and his command of spoken Mandarin, and he was quickly picked out by Chinese in the crowd and captured on camera phones in photos and a video that soon spread across the Internet.

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Even though Huntsman maintained that he’d been out on a family stroll and happened by the protest inadvertently, no one in China believed that, and the video of him with two strapping sons, misidentified as bodyguards, quickly circulated in China as proof that the United States was engineering the protests. I don’t know whether Huntsman’s presence was an accident. I do know that having America’s senior representative on the scene was damaging, given the hypersensitivity of the Chinese government and many citizens to the merest hint of foreign meddling in domestic affairs. (On the most-circulated video, a Chinese man yells at Huntsman, “You want chaos for China, don’t you?”) It also illustrated the awkwardness of Huntsman’s staying on as ambassador to America’s most important partner/rival country while publicly contemplating a run against the president who had appointed him.

Within two days, the street outside the Wangfujing McDonald’s had been almost entirely blocked by out-of-nowhere “street repair” construction hoardings. The following Sunday, when the next Jasmine march was supposed to take place, almost no demonstrators appeared in Wangfujing. Instead there were large numbers of foreign reporters and tourists, and countless hundreds of security forces. Jasmine demonstrators in Shanghai mustered a larger showing that day, but that turned out to be a high-water mark. By late February, the Jasmine “movement” was on its way to being decisively shut down.

My wife and I were in China, mainly Beijing, through February and March, so we had a chance to see how this movement tentatively built itself and was then quelled, at least for a while. One of the realities hardest to convey about modern China (and Atlantic readers know that I certainly have tried over the years) is how life there can be simultaneously so wide-open and so tightly controlled. In most of the country and for most people’s pursuits, this Chinese Winter that followed an Arab Spring left life looking normal. The economy kept growing; farmers worried about their crops and students about their tests; engineers designed new high-speed rail lines. I was in China mainly to report on the country’s big high-tech ambitions, and there was absolutely nothing about my interviews or factory visits that was not business as usual.

Yet for those in China who defined their business as involving politics of any sort, the pressure was intense. First, in February, a large number of the country’s human-rights and public-interest lawyers (yes, they exist) were arrested or detained, or were disappeared, in the style of Pinochet’s Chile. Once they were gone, people they might have represented and defended—writers, professors, bloggers, activists of many sorts—were arrested or made to disappear too. The Nobel Committee expressed concern not just that the most recent recipient of the Peace Prize, the civil-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, was still imprisoned but that they had not heard anything from him for months. “Signs of tightening control have been visible for several years,” Joshua Rosenzweig, a human-rights official in Hong Kong, wrote in March. “But the authorities are now employing a range of new, illegal methods to silence their critics … Most terrifying of all is the way in which enforced disappearance appears to have become almost routine.”

Apart from Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese activist best known around the world is the artist Ai Weiwei. Inside China he had, among other causes, sought investigations into the lax building standards that led to thousands of schoolchildren’s deaths in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. On April 3 of this year, as he was about to board a plane in Beijing for Hong Kong, he was detained too. Eventually he was charged with tax evasion, and remained in legal jeopardy even after his release in June. “If the authorities can detain a figure of such stature arbitrarily and hold him incommunicado as long as they want with no access to family or legal counsel, then no one in China is safe from the whims and anxieties of those in power,” Wei Jingsheng, who himself had served 15 years in prison for political crimes before being released to the United States in the 1990s, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor after the arrest.

I realize that a chronicle of such cases becomes tedious, especially with unfamiliar names. But every day, new names appeared—on foreign news sites, not in the Chinese press—along with other illustrations of a society politically closing up and cracking down. Conferences with international attendees were canceled at the last minute. So too, with one day’s notice, was a prestigious annual debate tournament, among teams from 16 leading Chinese universities. The topic, a reconsideration of the ideals set out for China a century ago in the revolution that overthrew the last Qing emperor, in 1911, was deemed too sensitive. Foreign journalists were one by one called in “for tea,” code for a cautionary talk with security officials. Usually the officials warned that the journalists would be expelled if they violated “rules”—some newly imposed, some long on the books but not enforced—requiring advance official permission before interviewing Chinese citizens.

Church meetings were disrupted. Members of “sensitive” ethnic groups—Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs, Inner Mongolians, all of whose home districts had been scenes of ongoing protest—came in for special scrutiny. One day in March, major boulevards in Beijing suddenly were lined with older women, bundled up in overcoats and with red armbands identifying them as public-safety patrols, who sat on stools at 20-yard intervals and kept watch for disruption. They had no practical effect except as reminders that the authorities were on guard and in control.

During the earliest stages of the Arab Spring, the mainstream Chinese media virtually ignored its existence. Then, as the drama in Egypt became un-ignorable, coverage in China emphasized the dangerous chaos and excesses. Then the theme became: whether or not such upheaval made sense for anyone else, it was the wrong way for China and would jeopardize the country’s hard-won gains. Global Times, a nationalist paper, said of Western protests about Ai Weiwei’s arrest: “The West’s behavior aims at disrupting the attention of Chinese society and attempts to modify the value system of the Chinese people.”

In a way, the most surprising and thoroughgoing change in Chinese daily life was in access to the Internet. As I wrote in these pages three years ago (“The Connection Has Been Reset,” March 2008), the genius of China’s Internet censorship has been its flexible repression. The filtering system known officially as Golden Shield and unofficially as the Great Firewall made finding unauthorized material just difficult enough that the great majority of Chinese citizens wouldn’t bother. Meanwhile, enough loopholes and pressure valves remained open that people who really cared about escaping its confines always could. A very significant loophole took the form of the government’s blind eye toward VPNs—“Virtual Private Networks,” which gave anyone willing to spend a dollar or two a week safe passage through the Great Firewall. You signed up for a VPN service, you made your connection, and from that point on you prowled the Internet just as if you were logged on from London or New York.

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,, 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.