Arab Spring, Chinese Winter

At The Atlantic, James Fallows recounts the aftermath of calls for an Egyptian- and Tunisian-inspired Jasmine Revolution in China earlier this year. He recalls the arrests and disappearances, and the sealing-up of longstanding cracks in the Great Firewall, and asks why a government apparently so much more secure than its deposed Arab counterparts felt it necessary to react so harshly.

I asked Chas Freeman what he made of China’s current turmoil. He is a former diplomat who served as Richard Nixon’s interpreter during his visit to China in 1972 …. When it came to contemporary China, Freeman said that he takes seriously the complaints about economic inequality, ethnic tension, and other potential sources of instability. But, he said, they remind him of conversations he had when living in Taiwan in the 1970s, before Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang party had moved from quasi-military rule to open elections. “People would say they are corrupt, they have no vision, they have a ridiculous ideology we have to kowtow to, but that no one believes in practice,” he told me. “And I would say, ‘If they’re so bad, why don’t you get rid of them?’ That would be greeted with absolute incredulity.” Taiwanese of that era would tell him that, corrupt or not, the party was steadily bringing prosperity. Or that there was no point in complaining, since the party would eliminate anyone who challenged its rule. The parallel with mainland China was obvious. A generation later, Taiwan had become democratized.

Conceivably, that is what another generation might mean for the mainland—especially if the next wave of rulers are less hair-trigger about security, and more concerned about the lobotomizing effects on their society of, for instance, making it so hard to use the Internet. Which in turn is part of a climate that keeps their universities from becoming magnets for the world’s talent, which in turn puts a drag on China’s attempts to foster the Apples, Googles, GEs of the future. We don’t know, but we can guess that whatever China’s situation is, a generation from now, we will be able to look back and find signs that it was fated all along. “People predicted the fall of the Chinese Communist Party in 1989, and it didn’t happen,” Perry Link told me. “People did not predict the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and it did happen. I’m sure that whatever happens in China, or doesn’t, we will be able to look back and say why.” If only it were possible to do that now.