Will China follow in the footsteps of the Arab world and witness an outbreak of protests? In a New York Times op-ed China’s Gradual Revolution, Guobin Yang, author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, argues that it is unlikely.
China’s government, unlike those of Egypt or Tunisia, is very savvy about how to handle online protests, restricting Internet access when it senses momentum growing among protest groups. However, the Chinese government is careful not to cut off access completely, knowing that it could backfire on them and hurt the economy.
Despite the Chinese government’s careful watch of the Internet, there are many online protest movements in China but these movements tend to be reformist rather than revolutionary. Their focus tends to be local, centering on corrupt government officials and specific injustices against Chinese citizens. Activists have come to understand the limits of what and how they can protest and in many cases their more concrete, albeit more modest, goals have been met.
Yang shows that these local efforts make a larger movement more difficult, something that plays into the hands of the Chinese government. Likewise even when the Chinese government addresses the concerns of protest movements, many of the larger underlying issues are ignored. Yang writes:
Yet rather than resolving the underlying sources of instability, the government all too often offers short-term, superficial solutions, which are more likely to sweep the problems under the carpet or dam them up. The introduction of the food safety law, for example, has so far failed to solve the country’s serious food safety problems.
What’s more, the energy and resources Beijing puts into maintaining control — its 2011 budget commits more money to internal security than to the military — means that little effort is being devoted to real reform.
There is always the possibility that, if these trends continue, the gaps between reality and people’s expectations will boil over into more aggressive, organized activism. But given the complex dynamic between the Chinese state and public activists, it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.