China’s widespread curbs on free speech could trigger its own Jasmine Revolution
Hillary Clinton doesn’t make mistakes. Let’s place to the side her unhappy 2008 run for the Democratic presidential nomination, during which, as they say, mistakes were made. As secretary of State she rarely makes an unforced error. She does, from time to time, economise the truth, even when speaking about perfectly awful regimes. But she is a diplomat now, and this is a hazard of the vocation.
So when this diplomat, who does not generally make mistakes, and who is proficient in the use of euphemism, speaks bluntly about the failings of a country on which America is disconcertingly dependent, my assumption is that we’re witnessing a deliberate shift in policy.
Not long ago, I interviewed Clinton on the meaning of the so-called Arab Spring. I raised the subject of China, and its own rough and hypersensitive reaction to the threat posed by citizens speaking their minds. Our conversation came shortly after the Chinese arrested many dissidents, most notably the artist Ai Weiwei, who made the mistake of writing a Twitter post about Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution in February:
"I didn’t care about jasmine at first," he wrote, "but people who are scared by jasmine sent out information about how harmful jasmine is … which makes me realise that jasmine is what scares them the most."
Clinton said, in reference to the Chinese leadership: "They’re worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible."
As a professional newsman, it was my task to pretend as if the secretary of State had not dropped a rather large bomb, and so I resisted the urge to try to make eye contact with her spokesman, who had shrewdly positioned his chair out of my line of sight. I imagined he was giving Clinton the classic "Are-we- absolutely-sure-we-want-to-condemn-the-historic-mistake-that-is- the-Communist-Party’s-programme-of-thought-control?" look.
I think that she meant to say what she said, and when I reported her comments in the Atlantic, it became clear that the Chinese also took her comments not as a gaffe but as a window onto the true beliefs of the Obama administration.
"It is inappropriate for anyone to relate or compare China to some west Asian and north African nations facing turmoil," the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. "And any attempt to direct the Middle East turmoil to China and change the development path chosen by the Chinese people will be futile."
So who is right? Is Jiang Yu correct that attempts to export the ideals of the Jasmine Revolution to China will be futile? Or is Hillary Clinton correct that the autocrats in Beijing are on a "fool’s errand"?
It is, of course, something of a fool’s errand to try to predict the future of any country, much less an enormous and confounding one like China, but here goes. One doesn’t have to be an acolyte of Francis Fukuyama, who forecast the final triumph of liberal democratic capitalism in "The End of History and the Last Man," to believe that the world will ultimately incline away from autocracy.
"The Chinese people are people, and they want what everyone else wants, which is more say in how they lead their lives," the author Gordon Chang told me. "It is clear that some sort of representative governance will come to China. The problem is in the transition. Transitions in China have always been turbulent and deadly and chaotic." (Chang resisted the urge to predict a date when the Chinese people will slip from the grasp of autocracy, which was prudent: Ten years ago, he published "The Coming Collapse of China," a book that may one day be counted in the same canon as "Castro’s Final Hour," which was published in 1992.)
One lesson of the Chinese Communist Party’s success in creating Leninist capitalism may be that nothing is inevitable.
"The teleology of history has us heading toward more openness and freedom, but has this new and very effective Chinese model hijacked history?" asks Orville Schell, of the Asia Society. "Hillary Clinton told you what she said because she believes it. She also knows full well that we’re at a kind of tipping-point moment. In a certain sense history ended, and then China started history again. We thought the Soviets were going to send history in a different direction, and they couldn’t, but the Chinese have a level of success in economic development that the Soviets never approached."
The Chinese also possess something absent in the autocratic Middle East: A technically sophisticated and all-encompassing apparatus of speech control, manned by secret police and abetted by private industry. It’s true that Iran and Syria make earnest attempts at thought-suppression, but their efforts are amateur by comparison (and they pale by comparison with their more enthusiastic efforts to curb unacceptable speech through murder.)
An accurate accounting of the number of Chinese bureaucrats whose days are devoted to scrubbing impermissible thoughts from the Internet isn’t known, but Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on Chinese Internet control at the New America Foundation, says the number rises into the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.
She listed for me a large number of organisations focused on speech suppression: The State Council Information Office, which has offices in every city and in every province; the propaganda department of the Communist Party; the Ministry of Public Security; the Ministry of State Security; the Ministry of Information, Industry and Technology; and the State Administration for Radio and Television. Plus, she said, private Internet companies all have departments that monitor their sites for speech deemed unacceptable by the government.
There is no sign that this system will soon come undone. And if it did, China could resort to more traditional modes of suppression: Schell describes a post-Tiananmen innovation of the Chinese system, the People’s Armed Police, a million-man force entrusted with "supporting stability," as being better equipped to handle a Tiananmen-style revolt than the People’s Liberation Army.
"I don’t think we’re going to see an Arab Spring come to China anytime soon," Schell said.
A more immediate concern for Hillary Clinton is that the Arab Spring might not be coming to the Arabs, either. Since the triumph of the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt, Arab resistance to autocracy has met with terrible setbacks. In Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya, dictators have learned that freedom can be thwarted - in part by the use of technology suppression, but mainly by the use of limitless violence.
At the moment, at least, freedom doesn’t seem entirely inevitable.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)