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The Big Picture

UPDATE (Feb 22, 2011) – There’s movement in China, though no traction (yet): Jasmine protests in China fall flat

I was struck looking through Boston Globe’s Big Picture coverage of the riots in Egypt by the Chinese comments left by readers. There aren’t many, just a handful or so (out of 176 total at current count), but the “standing with our oppressed brothers” battle cry was clear.

Take, for example, comment #80: 埃及人民加油!中国的问候、你们是我们的榜样 (Go, the people of Egypt! Greetings from China. You serve as our role models).

Or comment #93: 像男人一样去维护自由,兵马俑问候木乃伊 (Protect freedom like a man. The terra cotta warriors send greetings to the mummies).

The parallel I drew from the very beginning was between Tahrir Square 2011 and Tiananmen Square 1989. Both uprisings stem from discontent intellectual youth demanding governmental reform. The blogosphere, however, will have me believe that this particular comparison is futile, that the more important (and relevant) comparison is Tahrir Square of 2011 and a potential Tiananmen Square of 201x. These Big Picture reader comments would support that idea – the germs of a new Chinese revolution have been planted. Furthermore, the Great Firewall censorship of the terms “Egypt” and “Cairo” in Chinese demonstrates the CCP’s own paranoia for citizen uprisings.

I still, however, maintain my original parallel. Instead of waving around hypotheticals of a Tiananmen 201x Incident, we’ve actually had time to reflect and analyze the events leading up to June 4, 1989. I would argue that the momentum of liberalization and intellectualism that drove students to protest in 1989, and the thorough discontent with the governing body that led to Tahrir 2011, is largely absent in China today.

It’s difficult to pin down a particular “level of discontent” amongst a citizen population, but we can take a look at what the original student protesters in 1989 are doing today. They’re bankers, consultants, high-ranking business(wo)men. Essentially, the energy that the intellectuals of the 1980s invested into activism got transfered to capitalism and personal professional pursuits. On the whole, these students became jaded and more like intellectuals everywhere else in the developed world: secularizing intellectualism from politics. With the backing of the Chinese government, this generation of intellectuals drove the phenomenal economic growth in China for the last 20 years, and not governmental reform.

So are they now politically apathetic? That might be too cynical. Their intentions for reform in 1989 were real and have no doubt stayed a big part of their characters since then. My more cynical view is that in light of economic progress and governmental resistance, they’ve gravitated away from politics and into personal economic advancements, the latter being more of a meritocracy and less of banging their heads against walls.

That leaves protest organization to today’s generation of youth and new intellectuals, the post-80s and post-90s population: the generation of little emperors and empresses, the generation that grew up in the age of economic prosperity, the generation with questionable senses of responsibility. Cast in that light, Tiananmen 201x seems less and less likely.

So what about the individuals leaving comments on Western media sites cheering on their Egyptian compatriots? Who are they and would they spearhead something? It’s hard to say. There are 1.3 billion Chinese; a handful of stray commenters are unlikely to start a revolution.

Addendum: One big consideration is the large population of rural and relatively uneducated Chinese (up to 75% of the 1.3 billion, depending on sources). Living in squalid conditions and certainly aware of the enormous separation of wealth, an organized uprising by farmers and migrant workers would actually be rather ironic: the proletariats demand more equality and economic socialism in a supposedly Communist regime.

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