China immune to revolution fever?

A police officer, right, urges people to leave as they gather in front of a cinema that was a planned protest site in Shanghai, China, Feb. 20, 2011. AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

China protesters told to go home
A police officer urges people to leave as they gather in front of a cinema that was a planned protest site in Shanghai, China, Feb. 20, 2011.
AP

This story was filed by CBS News correspondent Celia Hatton in Beijing.

Revolutionary fever has been spreading east from Tunisia for weeks, but it hasn't hit China... yet.

There were calls online for protesters to gather in designated spots in 13 cities across mainland China on Sunday. But few disgruntled citizens showed their faces, and no prominent political dissidents inside China supported the calls to rally.

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In the end, the resulting non-events were little more than bizarre meetings of journalists and Chinese police. The original, anonymous appeals trying to arrange the demonstrations appeared on U.S.-based Chinese-language news site Boxun.com. So far, no one's come forward to claim responsibility for the idea.

The Chinese public's muted reaction to the turmoil in the Middle East hasn't stopped Chinese authorities from cracking down on any signs of unrest. Since the political upheaval in Tunisia caught-on in Egypt, dozens of Chinese dissidents have been detained or placed under house arrest. Internet searches for terms like "Jasmine Revolution" and "Egypt Revolution" are also blocked online inside China.

China's top security official, Zhou Yongkang, told followers on Sunday that they must "strive to defuse conflicts and disputes while they are still embryonic," reported the China Police Daily.

When reporting on events in the Middle East, China's state-controlled media stresses the social "chaos" and economic turmoil caused by anti-government protestors, taking pains to emphasize how many have died in the uprisings.

Chinese citizens are told that "mature" citizens must wait patiently for progress.

"Due to the spread of mobile phones, the Internet and microblogs, it is fairly easy for someone to publish criticism and cause a flow of complaints. Similarly, it costs nothing to draw attention by doing something sensational," reads a recent editorial in China's state-run newspaper, The Global Times. "It is the responsibility of every patriot to cooperate with the government's social management efforts and help craft sustainable social stability."

This idea is repeated over and over throughout the Chinese media.

It's unlikely, however, that China's leaders are comfortable assuming the vast population will follow its advice. Protests are common inside China, ranging from ethnic clashes in the Tibetan region in 2008 and in the northwestern Xinjiang region in 2009 to frequent incidents of violence from disgruntled unemployed workers in China's southern factory belt.

Clashes between seemingly powerless rural peasants and local authorities also take place regularly, though they rarely make international headlines. The Chinese government used to post a yearly tally of "mass incidents," or incidents of group social unrest, topping off at 87,000 for 2005. The government-supported China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) then estimated the number of mass incidents "more than doubled" between 2004 and 2010, leading to a rough estimate of 180,000 incidents a year across the country.

China watchers shouldn't assume the push for political reform in China will mirror the pro-democracy protests that filled Tiananmen Square in 1989. It's also unlikely that any sustained political opposition in China can be drummed up from outside the country, much less from an American website like Boxun.com. Instead, China's answer to the smoldering Jasmine Revolution has yet to become clear. But we'll know it when we see it.

  • Celia Hatton

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