Smelling salts for China's Jasmine dream
  • Fri, 02/25/2011 - 11:00

Asia Times
By Peter Lee
Feb 26, 2011

China's "Jasmine incident" suggests new paradigms in the game of cat-and-mouse between China's security organs and dissidents.

The government's anxiety over events in the Arab world and North Africa was on full display on February 20 as hundreds of police were dispatched to Beijing's Wangfujing central shopping street and other sites around China to counter a "Jasmine" demonstration promoted by the overseas Chinese dissident website

Known dissidents were reportedly detained and, in some cases, brutalized. Boxun was subjected to a distributed denial of service

(DDoS) attack and the security services anxiously blocked keywords related to "Jasmine".

The event itself was a bizarre one-off that many dissidents chose not to attend, and yielded more onlookers and journalists than demonstrators.

In an interesting way, the Chinese government's overreaction - rather than the actions of the demonstrators - turns out to be the story.

China Digital Times posted the account of one blogger in Beijing, Jason Ng:
I was shocked by how influential the event was; I was pleased to see the Chinese authorities become the proverbial ants in the hot wok.

To be honest, when Shudong posted the call to protest, I felt absolutely certain that it was a joke. Even now I still feel like it was a joke. Not only do I feel this way, but a lot of people also feel this way.

If the government hadn't had such a big reaction, I believe that not so many people would have participated in the Jasmine revolution.

Unfortunately, for those who have guilty consciences, at a certain point, demons can be heard in the sound of the midnight wind. [1]

With its ceaseless calls for "stability", China's government has backed itself into a Confucian corner.

"Instability" - a multipolar society fueled by access to the Internet - is becoming a fact of life, the new default setting. The intrusiveness of the "Great Firewall" and the security apparatus attempting to impose stability are threatening to become more prominent irritants than the dissent they are meant to stifle.

Unless the Chinese government has enough resources to send police to every street corner, a goon to every dissident's household, and a fifty-center to every online forum whenever an impish website announces a demonstration, it is going to have to develop new tools to manage China's political life.

The most relevant lesson for China from the people's revolts in the Arab world is that single-party authoritarianism is increasingly vulnerable. When only state tools (police, security forces and the army) and the occasional club-wielding thugs are available to counter widespread political dissent, the government quickly finds itself on the wrong side of the public-relations equation.

China's future may look more like Russia and Iran's: messy and multi-party.

Both Russia and Iran have chosen to reconcile themselves to multi-party politics, if not democracy. To protect the ruling groups, they have created, financed and preferentially promoted through pro-state media and various murky machinations nationalist political parties that serve as another weapon against democratic dissent.

Certainly, Iran sent as chilling but more effective message for pro-government parties in the call of the Majlis (parliament) for the death penalty for key opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, than it was for Chinese policemen to put a rice bag over the head of a dissident, Liu Shihui, punch him and break his leg. [2]

The calculation that people will embrace Confucian authoritarianism looks more and more risky as domestic and international forces impinge on China, much as they did the at the first modern collapse of Confucianism at the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may find it necessary to become more Taoist - to react to events rather than pretend to control them all - and think about replacing its overseas Confucius Institutes with Laozi academies.

The question, however, is whether the CCP dares surrender some of the perquisites and power that go with being the "father and mother of the people".

There are indications that the Chinese government is going to, if anything, double down on "stability" by perpetuating single-party rule through the second-generation of princelings.

If the Chinese leadership does not draw useful and important lessons from the total princeling failure in Libya, coming on the heels of the massive public repudiation of Hosni Mubarak's son and rumored heir-apparent, Gamal, then its situation is potentially dire.

Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif, had staked out political space for himself as the sane one in the family: the suit-wearing, London School of Economics-educated technocrat who would manage the family business (which his father had put on a sound geopolitical footing by engineering an unlikely - and expensive - post-terrorism, post-weapons of mass destruction, post-Lockerbie rapprochement with the West) on neo-authoritarian terms.

But he instantaneously bankrupted his political capital in a finger-wagging TV address in support of the crackdown. Steve Clemons wrote:

What is interesting is that Saif Gaddafi is no idiot. He has seen for some time that his father's government was brittle and fragile - and that a spark could come along and unleash internal rage against those holding incumbent power.

Much to the distress and private anger of Libyan leader Moammer Gaddafi's chief internal security and military czars, Saif Gaddafi has led a domestic campaign of reconciliation and bridge-building with the Muslim Brotherhood, considered at that time to be the regime's chief political opponent. At Saif's urging and with grudging support from his father, various former leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had been appointed to various key government and semi-government positions of responsibility.

When I was in Libya, three of the LIFG's top tier - the Emir of the group as well as the head of planning, and of armaments - were taken off of death row and released. I was there and met them and watched the discomfort of the chief of internal security as this was happening. Saif was trying to make the police state his father had built relax its grip and to reconcile with many of those it feared.

Thus, while I am no fan of Gaddafi, the full story of the revolution inside Libya can't be told without understanding that Saif Gaddafi, a likely successor to his father, believed in certain kinds of reforms and inclusion early - but given the tenor, the arrogance, and distance from reality he exhibited in his televised comments, he showed that he doesn't understand the public grievances driving this revolution.

There is little hope that any of these regimes in the Middle East really understand what an inclusive, non-totalitarian regime would really look like. [3]

The princeling problem is not a matter of mere academic interest to China.

The man widely expected to lead China after Hu Jintao retires as president, Xi Jinping, is himself a princeling, the son of Xi Zhongxun, who implemented the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) reform.

Reuters was granted its own exclusive trove of 1,000 WikiLeaks cables. Paul Eckert's February 17 review of the cables concentrated on the outsized role of princelings in the CCP elite - and in Xi's mindset.

Relations at the party's top echelon are "akin to those in the executive suite of a large corporation, as determined by the interplay of powerful interests, or as shaped by competition between princelings with family ties to party elders and 'shopkeepers' who have risen through the ranks of the Party," said a cable from July 2009, citing conversations with a source with family connections to senior leaders.

Shopkeepers is a derogatory term the offspring of revolutionary leaders use to describe those without elite party family backgrounds, a fellow princeling who befriended Xi as a teenager told diplomats.

"While my father was bleeding and dying for China, your father was selling shoelaces," the friend, who now lives outside China, quoted one of his peers as saying.

Retired, and in some cases active, leaders and their families had taken firm control of sectors such as electric power, oil, banking, real estate and precious gems and they opposed media openness, fearing the scrutiny this might bring to their activities, it said.

"The central feature of leadership politics was the need to protect oneself and one's family from attack after leaving office," said the cable.

"Ever since the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of party elders have been pushing to place their progeny atop the party, believing that only their own offspring can be trusted to run the party," a diplomat wrote in a cable after conversations with a party think tank scholar.

Other informants also insist that Xi's upbringing among the ruling elite is the best indicator of his attitudes. "Party elders were primarily concerned with having someone 'conservative' like Xi in place who will not threaten their 'vested interests,'" said the journalist with family ties to the leadership.

"Our contact is convinced that Xi has a genuine sense of 'entitlement,' believing that members of his generation are the 'legitimate heirs' to the evolutionary achievements of their parents and therefore 'deserve to rule China'," said a long November 2009 cable summarizing two years of conversations with the friend who was close to Xi during their youth.[4]

If the WikiLeaks cables are correct - and there is no guarantee they are; diplomats are not immune to alarmism, wishful thinking, the attractions of delivering opinions their superiors want to hear, and plain, simple error - the CCP is risking self-immolation by placing at the apex of power a mediocre princeling who instinctively understands the elite's obsession with profit, power, and protection but little else.

Inevitably, princelings will serve as the focus of popular resentment in any Chinese political crisis. People may be willing to sacrifice individual rights for national development, but not to perpetuate personal privilege into the second or third generation. In such circumstances, Xi Jinping may be more liability than asset as the face of the party.

What may save Xi Jinping is an assist from China's dissidents, whose perceptions of people power and events in the Middle East seem as mired in nostalgia for 1989 and recollections of Tiananmen as the leadership is obsessed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Many Chinese dissidents are understandably infatuated with the spectacle of large crowds in large squares.

There is also appears to be an understandable but somewhat more dubious assumption that the magic process of democracy will adequately resolve the deeply rooted problems created or papered-over by decades of authoritarian rule.

Unfortunately, revolution in China will probably look very little like the Velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia - which inspired the optimistic liberal democratic aspirations of China's dissident Charter 08 - or even the Egyptian revolution. It may very well look a lot like the Soviet collapse of 1991: the near instantaneous liquidation of the massive territories and state assets of a multi-national empire.

Scenarios include secession by Tibet (not just the autonomous region but also large swaths of majority-Tibetan territories in Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu) and the establishment of a pro-Western/pro-Indian government in Lhasa; nationalist agitation if not independence in Xinjiang; a spasm of aggrieved hypernationalist sentiment, and vigorous competition by candidate strongmen in the ranks of the party, the security apparatus, and the military for the levers of power and profit as the economy lurches into crisis.

More problematically, the Egypt experience has elicited another iteration of idealistic Chinese paeans to the selfless national love displayed by the armed forces, which will wield decisive force

during a period of crisis and transition. Liberal blogger Great River wrote:
The new element of the Egyptian incident is that it told the world: the organs of the state belong to the nation, and the nation belongs to the people. Therefore, national organs must respond to the call of the people and not oppose the people. This is an obvious fact in democratic societies, but has not been endorsed by some autocratic societies. In these countries the army and the police are used routinely to suppress opposition and dissent.

This time the Egyptian army heeded the call of the people and stood on the correct side of history. This is an act of great significance, indicating to militaries in similar countries to keep in good order and not act as the henchmen of the tyrants. I dare to predict that if, in the future the circumstances of 20 years ago are repeated, no strongman would dare give the order to fire and the army would not lightly obey. Whoever gives the order to fire, the army would turn its weapons around and settle accounts! [5]

This is an interesting but ahistorical expression of optimism, given what actually happened in Tiananmen and fact that the overall political and economic success of the KMT (Whampoa Academy and Northern Expedition) and, subsequently, the CCP ("power comes from the barrel of a gun") were defined by their development and deployment of independent military power when "people power" - political action and mass agitation - were by themselves ineffectual.

As for Egypt, it is an awkward fact that Egypt is, at least for now, under the rule of a military junta and not governed by its increasingly fractious collection of people power advocates. In fact, activists have been obliged to return to Tahrir Square in an effort to advance their agendas against the resistance of the military.

Therefore, it might be posited that militaries are not instinctively or reliably pro-democratic and their definition of what constitutes patriotic action is often a matter of institutional convenience.

Indeed, the armed forces, when freed from party or state control, may end up supporting whatever opportunistic faction pleases them, instead of "the nation" and "the people".

As an object lesson as to how armed forces actually behave during the collapse of a communist empire, we can turn to Boris Yeltsin's career, courtesy of Wikipedia:

On 18 August 1991, a coup against Gorbachev was launched by the government members opposed to perestroika. Gorbachev was held in Crimea while Yeltsin raced to the White House of Russia (residence of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR) in Moscow to defy the coup. The White House was surrounded by the military but the troops defected in the face of mass popular demonstrations. Yeltsin responded to the coup by making a memorable speech from the turret of a tank. By 21 August most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow and Gorbachev was "rescued" from Crimea and then returned to Moscow. Yeltsin was subsequently hailed by his supporters around the world for rallying mass opposition to the coup.

So far so good.

But two years later, the scene was rather different, when parliamentary opposition to Yeltsin's efforts to expand presidential power led to a constitutional crisis and the designation of a second, competing president of the Russian Federation by the parliament:

Yeltsin claimed that by dissolving the Russian parliament in September 1993 he was clearing the tracks for a rapid transition to a functioning market economy. With this pledge, he received strong backing from the leading powers of the West. Yeltsin also sparked popular unrest with his dissolution of a parliament increasingly opposed to his neoliberal economic reforms.

Tens of thousands of Russians marched in the streets of Moscow seeking to bolster the parliamentary cause. The demonstrators were protesting against the deteriorating living conditions. Since 1989, the GDP had been declining, corruption was rampant, violent crime was skyrocketing, medical services were collapsing and life expectancy falling. Yeltsin was also increasingly getting the blame.

The pro-parliamentary faction was in the majority on the streets of Moscow. As for the army, the flattery, handholding, and a commitment to risk avoidance seems to have been at least as important as heeding the popular will:

Between October 2-4, the position of the army was the deciding factor. The military equivocated for several hours about how to respond to Yeltsin's call for action.

Rutskoy [the president selected by parliament], as a former general, appealed to some of his ex-colleagues. After all, many officers and especially rank-and-file soldiers had little sympathy for Yeltsin. But the supporters of the parliament did not send any emissaries to the barracks to recruit lower-ranking officer corps, making the fatal mistake of attempting to deliberate only among high-ranking military officials who already had close ties to parliamentary leaders. In the end, a prevailing bulk of the generals did not want to take their chances with a Rutskoy-Khasbulatov regime. Some generals had stated their intention to back the parliament, but at the last moment moved over to Yeltsin's side. [6]

A left-wing dissident, Boris Kargalitsky - who was imprisoned by the USSR for two years and also detained and beaten by Yeltsin's forces - provides an account of the army's antagonistic interactions with people power in the Russian capital in 1993:

On September 21, when Yeltsin declared the Parliament disbanded, the resistance proved unexpectedly strong. For almost two weeks, the deputies who refused to leave remained besieged in the White House - without electricity or fuel, surrounded by barbed wire and troops. Thousands of people rallied at the Parliament building. The police and the troops beat and dispersed them, but they still came back. It seemed that something previously unseen in Russia might come true: the law would prevail over force, and civil disobedience would make the troops retreat. However, this was not to be.

On October 3, government forces opened fire on the demonstrators at the Moscow mayor's office and provoked an armed clash. Hundreds of people were killed and wounded. Tanks fired point-blank at the Parliament building. At the Ostankino television studio, 3,000 unarmed activists and some twenty or thirty armed defenders of the Parliament were met by the special unit Vityaz (Knight), fifteen armored personnel carriers, and several hundred armed policemen and soldiers. As soon as the crowd rushed into the building, the government units took their positions and opened fire.

The assault on the White House began early in the morning of October 4, when armored personnel carriers opened fire on the crowd assembled at the Parliament. The shelling, from cannons and large-caliber machine guns, continued for several hours. While hundreds of unarmed people hid from fire in the Parliament basement, more and more reinforcements kept arriving. Blazes started on the upper floors. The library, archive, and computer center were burning. How many people perished there will never be known.

Despite the intensive shelling, several thousand people tried to break through into the White House. They were held back by machine-gun fire. Soon, soldiers began plundering all the stores around the White House. Government forces constantly shot at nearby residential buildings. One apartment house caught fire, but the troops did not allow firefighters in until half of it had burned down. [7]

Wikipedia continues:

Crushing the "second October Revolution," which, as mentioned, saw the deadliest street fighting in Moscow since 1917, cost hundreds of lives. Police said, on October 8, that 187 had died in the conflict and 437 had been wounded. Unofficial sources named much higher numbers: up to 2,000 dead.

Yeltsin was backed by the military only grudgingly, and at the eleventh hour. The instruments of coercion gained the most, and they would expect Yeltsin to reward them in the future. A paradigmatic example of this was General Pavel Grachev, who had demonstrated his loyalty during this crisis.

Grachev became a key political figure, despite many years of charges that he was linked to corruption within the Russian military. Grachev presided over the disastrous first Chechen War as Yeltsin's Minister of Defense. In addition to military incompetence, he was known as "Pashka Mercedes" for his alleged corruption. (Dmitry Kholodov , a journalist who penned a devastating expose of Grachev, was killed in 1994 by a booby-trapped suitcase).

The crushing of the parliamentary opposition in 1993 with the assistance of the army is considered to be a key milestone in the emasculation of the legislature and the transformation of Russia into a "superpresidential" system in which power - including control of the military - is concentrated in the executive branch.

Yeltsin allowed the military to slip the party leash and assume a political role. Unsurprisingly, the military exploited the latitude it was given with little regard for the sensibilities of democracy activists. In 2006, Zoltan Barany of the University of Texas concluded:

Yeltsin acquiesced to the officer corps' political role, permitted the evolution of a legal framework that, in fact, legitimated that role, and-as long as the top brass did not encroach upon presidential prerogatives-allowed them to run the armed forces as they saw fit. As a result, the generals succeeded in circumventing the radical defense reform Russia had needed and developed a culture of corruption and abuse of power unprecedented in Soviet-Russian history. [8]

The Russian executive branch has been called a "militocracy" because it is permeated by ex-military, state security, and internal security officers. Is it a democracy? Barany wrote:

Contemporary Russia is certainly not a democracy, unless one uses that term so generously as to apply to virtually all states that hold elections no matter how skewed and inconsequential they might be.

This is the system that evolved out of the intersection - actually the collision - of military power and people power in the post-communist period in Russia.

Something to think about as elites and dissidents pursue diverging fantasies of authoritarianism and democracy inside China.

1. Jason NG: What a Beautiful Sensitive Word, China Digital Times, Feb 22, 2011.
2. Chinese lawyer beaten ahead of jasmine revolution protests, Guardian, Feb 21, 2011.
3. Saif Gaddafi's Flirtations with Reform were Just That, The Washington Note, Feb 21, 2011.
4. Special Report: Cables show U.S. sizing up China's next leader, Reuters, Feb 17, 2011.
5. Click Here for original text (in Chinese).
6. 1993 Russian constitutional crisis, Wikipedia.
7. Witness to Yeltsin's coup - Boris Yeltsin; Parliament siege of Sept.-Oct. 1993, BNet, Dec. 1993.
8. Superpresidentialism and the Military: The Russian Variant, BNet, Mar. 2008.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.