In 2008, Yu Keping, the head of China's Central Compilation and Translation Bureau and a professor at Peking University, published an attention-grabbing collection of essays called Democracy is a Good Thing. Coming from a Chinese Communist Party official said to be close to President Hu Jintao, Yu's bold assertion that "democracy is the best political system for humankind" was striking. But so was the fine print: Yu argued in the book that while "it is the inevitable trend for all nations of the world to move towards democracy ... the timing and speed of the development of democracy and the choice of the form and system of democracy are conditional." Among other things, he has resisted the idea that a multi-party political system would be appropriate for China. All of which is to say that Yu is something of a sphinx: As a New York Times profile observed last year, "Even China experts have a hard time determining whether Mr. Yu is a brave voice for change or simply a well-placed shill."
Which makes Yu -- who is in Washington this week -- a particularly interesting person to ask about the current moment in Chinese politics, in which the Communist Party is managing the transition from Hu to his presumed presidential successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, while watching the sudden explosion of anti-government, pro-democratic sentiment in the Arab world with palpable unease. The Chinese government began cracking down on human rights activists, artists, and writers in March, and barred another prominent writer from leaving the country this week.
When I asked Yu in an interview this morning about how the Arab revolutions look from Beijing, and about the recent crackdown, he was characteristically careful. "Everyone, especially Western media, are thinking whether the same kind of revolution would take place in China," he told me. "[And] yes, you have seen some people beginning to get together and assemble [in China]." But two things, he argued, made China different from Egypt. "The first one is that based on our surveys, we know that the majority of the people in China are quite satisfied with the government because of the benefits they have gained from reform. Secondly, the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party are very strong in terms of their leadership -- this sets us apart from the Arab world."
If people are content with the leadership, I asked, why are these arrests and investigations necessary? "We are undergoing a gigantic transformation in China, so of course we are going to have a lot of questions, a lot of challenges," he said. "Challenges to China's stability are a very important question. Therefore we need to investigate; we need to find out how we can resolve them. ... Stability is a precursor to development, and therefore without stability you cannot talk about the welfare of the people, you cannot talk about democracy, you cannot talk about prosperity."
The notion of an Arab spring-style upheaval in China always struck me as wildly unlikely for any number of reasons. If we're still talking about the possibility at all, it's largely because China's leaders keep loudly insisting that such a thing will never happen, and responding to flickers of unrest, however faint, in ways that catch the world's attention: Concern over the prospect of a homegrown "Jasmine Revolution" -- as the Arab revolutions are known in China, after the name Tunisians gave to their successful revolt in January -- has led the government to sporadically block the characters for "jasmine" in cell phone text messages, and in some cases even attempt to ban sales of the plant itself.
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarkably aggressive comments about China in an interview with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, published today, do cast the Chinese concerns in a somewhat different light. In response to Goldberg's suggestion that the Chinese government "seemed scared of the Arab uprising," Clinton replied, "Well, they are. 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 Goldberg's colleague James Fallows notes, this is not how American diplomatic officials usually talk about China. The backstage chatter at this week's U.S.-China Economic and Strategic Dialogue must be pretty interesting.
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