Middle East Revolutions: The View from China

Perry Link writes on the New York Review of Books blog about the impact of recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia on activism in China, and how they give the lie to the official Chinese view that demands for human rights and democracy stem from the work of “hostile, Western forces”:

In recent years, China’s own activists have identified freedom, democracy, human rights and human dignity as “universal values”: this is one of the core ideas in Charter 08, the reform document the government has tried so hard to suppress. China’s rulers have countered by claiming that “so-called” universal values are merely “tactics peddled by the West.” This confrontation has spawned a “universal values debate” in Chinese intellectual circles, where the government’s side, benefiting from its control of the media, has until recently been holding its own. But when young people in Tunisia and Egypt (of all places!) speak up for universal values, the claim that these values are parochial and imposed by the US and its western allies is undermined.

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt could not have happened without Facebook and Twitter. Young people used these social media to communicate and to organize, and the repressive apparatus of their governments could not keep pace. Facebook has yet to enter China in a major way, but Twitter has already made a huge difference. The direct exchanges that Wang Lixiong has arranged between the Dalai Lama and thousands of Chinese citizens, for example, have all been done by Twitter, and Twitter is the preferred medium for personal exchanges among people who want to stay one step ahead of the Internet police.

But the deftness of technology is only one reason why Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel Peace laureate, has called the Internet “God’s gift to China.” Even more important for Chinese wangmin, or “Web-citizens,” has been the psychological liberation made possible by online anonymity. Throughout the Communist period, Chinese media censorship has been based largely on self-censorship induced by fear. But this mechanism works only when the fear-inducing authority knows who you are. The multifarious and very frank expression that can be found on the Chinese Internet today is done almost entirely under pseudonyms. The authorities have banned the use of pseudonyms, but when 400 million people use them anyway, what can they do?

For a related perspective, see “The View of Cairo from Authoritarian International” by Howard French.