The answers to why there was no 'Chinese Spring' can all be found online

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 10:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 10:38am


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Last week marked two years since revolutions in the Arab world inspired pro-democracy protests in Beijing and Shanghai, prompting The Diplomat to consider why China still hasn't had a 'Spring' of its own:

So why have Chinese citizens trended towards localized protests rather than the national protest movements seen in the Arab spring? As discussed in an important body of research, one source of this difference is linked to the structure of the state itself. In China, unlike most autocracies – including Mubarak’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia—the state is highly decentralized. Local governments are given a substantial level of autonomy over development policies as well as social management – decisions related to dealing with popular challengers through repression or alternatively, the extension of concessions.

Since local authorities make decisions over the carrots and sticks used to address the demands of citizens with a high degree of autonomy, these officials rather than the national leadership or the regime itself are the primary target of most protest actions.

On the cover of its latest issue, Hong Kong-based current affairs magazine iSun Affairs leads readers into a debate over the merit of protesting online versus taking to the streets. In the issue's lead editorial, iSun Editor-in-Chief Chang Ping writes:

In cases such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, even those researchers most enamoured with social media define its role as having made it convenient to mobilise people onto the streets. In China, however, the story has been rewritten to the choice between taking either to the internet or the street. This in turn boils down to who possesses control over the internet. Criticism once made of CCTV of being a lapdog to the Party, one which bites whomever and as hard as commanded, can now be applied not just to Sina Weibo but to all public media in China.

Nonetheless, one still can't deny the value in netizens' use of new technology and delayed responses in the cat-and-mouse game played with authorities. While the internet has not only failed to change the political system but even become a powerful tool for maintaining stability, in the process of playing this game netizens have to a large extent changed themselves. What we must remember now, however, is that the most powerful form of protest involves actual physical presence.

In the same issue, independent media and culture critic Michael Anti looks at the failed promise that the current microblogging obsession was bound to bring the country closer to democracy:

To put it simply, until the Chinese regime undergoes a fundamental change, unless microblogging is replaced by new technology it will continue to assist the Chinese government in keeping power to control information concentrated at the political centre; at the very least this complicates microblogging's role in democratising China, and at the most has a negative effect.
Whoever controls the servers used by China's 300 million microbloggers controls all the information and relationships existing between all microbloggers. This would be equivalent to putting WikiLeaks' servers inside the White House; as clever as Assange is, he would never catch the White House off guard. Between use of network analysis, data mining and geotagging, the Chinese central government is not only able to accurately map out networks of all dissidents throughout the country, but is also able to use keywork monitoring and semantic analysis to forecast any possible action planned by citizens as well as individual users' ideological leaning. Once local authorities are notified, the threat to the government is located on the grid and nipped in the bud.