The Revolution will not be searchable

By Henry Hoyle

The failed effort to spark protests in China last week reflects the unique circumstances of the Middle East's Jasmine Revolution and the very different political and economic circumstances in China. But one lesson Beijing's decision-makers did apparently learn was this: their deep suspicion of social media and the Internet was justified -- and perhaps even insufficient. Indeed, calls for coordinated demonstrations on Sina Weibo, China's fastest-growing microblogging service, were answered with pre-emptive deployments of paramilitary forces, unusually harsh treatment of dissidents, and tightened internet controls. With plenty of security forces and foreign journalists but no apparent protestors, the demonstrations were more like "performance art," an English-language Party tabloid aptly opined. One likely outcome of the Arab spring for China is that Beijing will likely become even more assertive on Internet policy, inching China closer to a walled-off web.  

Beijing has long been interested in what you might call "authoritarian best practices." In the 1990s and 2000s, the Party leadership systematically sought to understand the errors that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Their official conclusion -- that the Soviet Communist Party weakened its grip on power and was beguiled by Western political ideas -- directly prompted one of China's most formative policy shifts in the last thirty years: Jiang Zemin's push to bring entrepreneurs and intellectuals into the Party. After the dust settles from the current upheavals in another part of the world, China's leaders will, inevitably, do a similar "lessons learned" review.

Of course, the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, while authoritarian, are not the Soviet Union. Nor is China today -- with its booming economy and increasingly pluralistic policy process coupled with a sprawling, sophisticated, and lavishly financed domestic security apparatus -- really comparable to any other authoritarian regime. One senior Chinese foreign policy official quoted in the Wall Street Journal smugly dismissed Arab unrest as a product of slow economic development and "old" methods of social control. The Chinese Communist Party, at least, seems confident that its security forces will not desert it.  

Yet events in Egypt and elsewhere will cause some internal deliberation in Beijing about how quickly disaffected, educated youth can use the Internet to bring even powerful autocracies to the precipice. Beijing eyes warily its own glut of under- and unemployed web-savvy college grads, who number in the millions. Thus these examples will likely weigh heavily in the leadership's future debates over the proper degree of web controls and online freedoms. The decision in 2010 to allow Google to continue its operations in China was a victory for those interest groups -- for instance, scientists and engineers -- who quietly argued that greater openness was vital to China's economic competitiveness. The lessons of the Arab spring may well reweight the discussion in favor of the other side.

Both President Hu Jintao and the domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang, have recently given speeches calling for increasing the state's capacity to manage "virtual society" and tightening social and media controls. A memo purportedly leaked from a secret Politburo meeting on Feb. 12 discussed planning for scenarios in which the Chinese internet would be partially shut down. The subsequent launch of China's second search engine run by official state media -- whose services are significantly more restrictive than even Baidu -- could well be a surrogate for just such a contingency. And in the last week, the popular networking site LinkedIn was blocked within China, moving the country toward an even more walled-off web. Smart money has also begun pricing in a future of markedly increased state interference in China's Internet. For example, Deutsche Bank recently lowered its rating on Sina Weibo, reflecting expectations that additional state interference with its services is inevitable following its role in spreading word of this month's protests.

If anything, the Arab uprisings will likely prod China's leadership to push yet farther the sophistication and technical capabilities of the state's censorship apparatus. Aided by rapidly improving technology and virtually limitless finances, the possibilities for the Party's increasingly subtle manipulation of technical means to both constrain and shape public opinion may grow exponentially.

And yet, many of China's netizens are becoming more cognizant, and resentful, of this censorship. The real question for China's leaders will be whether social control, in the absence of material progress in addressing worsening inequality, inflation, and corruption, will deal effectively with the underlying reasons for the anger now seething among wide swathes of China's people.

Henry Hoyle is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.