As Egyptians woke up this morning to a whole new world without Hosni Mubarak (hello, lower oil prices!), Evan Osnos discusses the mystery of the Chinese-language protest placard that has been seen by thousands of internet users here in the meanwhile:
In Chinese, this placard declares, “The Egyptian people demand that President Mubarak step down.” Linguist Victor Mair posted it to his Language Log blog, and asked, rightly: Who is the intended audience? Why put it in Chinese? Along with another picture making the rounds, which combines Chinese and Arabic, this image has inevitably re-stoked discussion about whether the protesters in Tahrir Square see the prospect of contagion in their work. As Mair (and one his commenters) point out, the message in at least one of these pictures appears to be directed more to those inside Egypt than outside: The Chinese characters may be serving as the Arabic equivalent of it’s-all-Greek-to-me, mocking Mubarak for being deaf to the people’s demands in any language. But the image above is something else; I suspect the objective is to earn a place on as many television screens and newspaper pages as possible. Without knowing how many signs are also appearing in Spanish or Swedish, it’s hard to say, but, anyway, it’s perhaps an indication, most of all, that the influence and breadth of the Chinese audience is now on the minds of Egyptian protesters in ways it might not have been just a few years ago.
The events in Egypt have continued to ripple through Chinese circles. Official instructions to the media, sent out in secret from the State Council Information Office and Bureau 11 of the Ministry of Public Security, have leaked (via China Digital Times): “Websites are to strengthen [monitoring] of posts, forums, blogs, and particularly posts on microblogs,” the orders say. “Our bureaus will forcibly shut down websites that are lax in monitoring.”
That monitoring has not stopped people from musing about how the Egypt events look from China. I’ve written about the differences that I’ve seen from my time in Egypt and China. The reliably thoughtful Shanghai-based writer Adam Minter offers a counterproposal: Instead of trying to get a handle on the attitudes of 1.3 billion Chinese people, he suggests that it might be better to try to ask “whether China has sufficient, robust institutions whereby average Chinese citizens can vent their frustrations, anger, and grievances.” He makes a good point. So, are China’s institutions for managing discontent up to the task? According to one oft-cited measurement, China’s police has recorded the annual number of “mass incidents” (over one hundred people) surging more than eight-fold between 1993 and 2004, to 74,000 that year. (Insert the usual caveats here about Beijing’s figures, measurement biases, etc., but it’s safe to say, for the moment, that the general trend is true.) How successfully has the Party been able to deal with that increase? Depending on the point of view, it has either managed the tensions successfully, as demonstrated by its enduring power, or it has simply postponed an inevitable reckoning. Up to now, as politics-watcher Russell Leigh Moses put it, in the face of major problems, “the Party danced between the downpours.” [Read more here]
While China is busy downplaying news of the Egyptian uprising, Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and an adjunct senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written a thoughtful article for the Financial Times discussing Tahrir Square’s message for China:
But look a little deeper and this ostensibly resilient regime is afflicted by many of the same pathologies as Egypt: repression, corruption, low accountability, a surprisingly narrow base of support and fast-rising inequality. Yes, growth and prosperity help the CCP maintain its legitimacy. But the regime knows that performance-based legitimacy is unreliable, at best. The same frustrations that drove Egyptians into the streets could be unleashed in China when its economy inevitably hits a speed bump.
With mounting developmental challenges, China’s continued economic prosperity is by no means guaranteed, while rising food price inflation is a particular cause of concern for the regime. For the CCP, meeting such challenges requires not only technocratic policy solutions but also ought to include political reforms that will open up participation, make the CCP more accountable, and create a new basis of legitimacy. [Read more here]