'Jasmine' protest plea set to fall on deaf ears

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 February, 2011, 12:00am

Mainlanders may gripe about inflation and corruption like the crowds in Egypt, but online calls for their own 'jasmine revolution' are unlikely to escalate into a full-scale pro-democracy movement, analysts said yesterday.

There is also little chance that Sunday's gatherings in Beijing and Shanghai will push the authorities into considering political reform, they added.

'The chances of it becoming a jasmine revolution are very small,' said Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong.

Despite widespread discontent on the mainland over rampant corruption, social inequality and the lack of rights, ordinary people's living standards have improved markedly in the past 30 years.

And Cheng said people would not be compelled to risk their current way of life to bring about political change. 'There are grievances ... but not strong enough to induce people to make a sacrifice to bring about a change in regime,' Cheng said.

'It's quite a different situation from the [jasmine revolutions] in the Middle East.

'People want to come and have a look, shout a few curses, but nobody wants to get organised because the price would be too big.'

Zhang Lifan, a historian formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said there was no clear consensus among protesters on what changes they wanted to see.

Also, they did not yet constitute a force strong enough to bring the government to the negotiating table.

'In Egypt, the crowds wanted Mubarak to step down, but there are no such demands (in China). They are just expressing their discontent,' Zhang said.

'What is different about China is that the economy is doing well and people still have money in their pockets.' At the same time, analysts say, there is no indication the government feels any pressure to make concessions on its monopoly on power.

Indeed, it has intensified political crackdowns over the past few years.

And it is reluctant to change its authoritarian style because it has learned the smart way to head off grievances, the analysts said.

The government now tries to suppress dissatisfaction by improving people's livelihoods through steps such as controlling inflation and improving housing and welfare.

'Their basic thinking is that ... if you're unhappy, I'll show some small tokens of grace and favour, like jailing a few corrupt officials to placate people's anger,' Zhang said.

The Communist Party has also learned its lessons from the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement and moves quickly to nip in the bud any unrest that appears to be brewing.

Nowadays, while the government gets tough with a handful of activists it perceives as leaders of potential unrest, it is often relatively soft-handed with the rallying crowds.

Around 100 activists and rights lawyers across the country were put under various forms of detention ahead of the rallies on Sunday.

Police arrested a handful of people at the scenes of the protests, but most people who showed up were simply told to leave.

However, the central government went on high alert and mobilised tens of thousands of police and state security agents to be on standby on Sunday in case the rallies spiralled out of control.

'The leadership has been sophisticated in dealing with grievances,' Cheng said. 'And they know how to handle mass incidents ... if people are not challenging the regime, they'd show considerable tolerance.'

Unlike in the 1980s, when disgruntled professors and intellectuals led the calls for reform, the government is now smart enough to garner their support by improving their wages and benefits, the analysts said.

Few are willing to risk their jobs to speak out against the government.

And unlike the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, which started off as a public commemoration of much-loved reformist leader Hu Yaobang, there are no overwhelming emotions running high on the mainland now.

But Wen Yunchao, one of the mainland's best-known bloggers, said 'people power' can never be underestimated.

'It's hard to tell how it will turn out, but this has undoubtedly pulled China closer to the pro-democracy wave,' he said. 'Information spread on the internet itself is power. We have to keep watching how things will turn out. But if inflation continues to get worse, you never know what might happen.'

Rounded up

The approximate number of rights lawyers and activists taken into detention ahead of Sunday's rallies was: 100