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Police officers break up a protest in front of the Peace Cinema in Shanghai on Feb. 20, 2011. Protesters gathered in central Beijing and Shanghai on Sunday after calls spread online across China urging pro-democracy gatherings inspired by protest rallies across the Middle East. (CARLOS BARRIA/Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Police officers break up a protest in front of the Peace Cinema in Shanghai on Feb. 20, 2011. Protesters gathered in central Beijing and Shanghai on Sunday after calls spread online across China urging pro-democracy gatherings inspired by protest rallies across the Middle East. (CARLOS BARRIA/Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Could Mideast revolutions spread to China? Add to ...

As the lunar calendar ushered in the Year of the Rabbit, a cartoon video briefly ricocheted around the Chinese Internet. In the opening scene, a small village of rabbits is living happily when a truck selling Three Tiger baby milk pulls up and drops off bottles for all the little bunnies.

But the milk is poisonous - it makes the baby rabbits' heads explode - and soon one mother rabbit is running down to complain at the cave of the tigers (the outgoing lunar year) that rule over them. When she gets inside, the red banner hanging on the cave wall is familiar to anyone who lives in China. "Build a harmonious forest," it reads, in a clear reference to President Hu Jintao's oft-stated goal of establishing a "harmonious society."

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But the tigers have no sympathy for what the rabbits are going through, mocking and beating them. Soon, the tigers are evicting the rabbits from their homes in the village and demolishing houses to make way for new developments.

Eventually, the rabbits decide that they have had enough and turn on the tigers, tearing them to bloody shreds with newly grown fangs. As the music rises from a lullaby to a heavy-metal climax, the screen is filled with a warning: "The Year of the Rabbit has come. Even rabbits bite when they're pushed."

Though the creator maintained that his video was simply an "adult fairy tale," the parallels to real life in China were all too obvious. Predictably, all links to the video were blocked within hours of its original appearance.

Is this the year the Chinese people rise up for the first time since 1989, when pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed by tanks on Tiananmen Square? Could the wave of popular protests that began in Tunis and swept through Cairo eventually reach Beijing? Could fast-rising food costs and the leaping price of oil bring an end to the unspoken pact - economic growth in exchange for stability - between the ruling Communist Party and China's 1.3 billion citizens?

There are unusual stirrings. Last week, a mysterious online call went out for protesters to launch a Jasmine Revolution in China. Though that effort failed - police far outnumbered the tiny group of people who assembled at the awkward rallying point of a McDonald's in central Beijing - another call has gone out for protesters to gather on Sunday in Beijing and 22 other cities.

"We do not support violent revolution; we continue to support non-violent non-co-operation. We invite every participant to stroll, watch or even just pretend to pass by. As long as you are present, the authoritarian government will be shaking with fear," the call to protest reads.

Though last weekend's gathering was considered a flop, the overreaction by the police - arresting dozens of key dissidents (some of whom had no idea about the online call to protest), deploying hundreds of police and threatening anyone who reposts the protest call with subversion charges - reveals how badly the Communist Party has been rattled by the string of revolts that has already brought down two authoritarian regimes and put others under threat in the Arab world and beyond.

The Chinese government sees the unrest in the Middle East as part of a longer string of popular uprisings that swept aside autocrats in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past decade. The state media regularly assert that all the revolts are American-backed, the people on the streets in each country duped into advancing U.S. interests. Beijing, they're clearly worried, could be the next target.





Bread not protests

I've seen a few revolutions up close. I was standing on the streets of Tbilisi in 2003 when the Rose Revolution ousted Eduard Shevardnadze from office in Georgia, and in snowy Kiev a year later when Ukraine had its Orange Revolution. I began to feel as though the "colour revolutions" were following me around when Lebanon's short-lived Cedar Revolution erupted in 2005 while my wife and I were taking Arabic lessons in Beirut.

The main reasons the crowds aren't yet calling for the ouster of Mr. Hu and the Politburo are simple: While Georgians and Ukrainians were tired of post-Soviet stagnation, and the Middle East's uprisings have been driven in large part by jobless youth, China's economy continues to grow at an impressive pace. The population here is much older than in the angry young societies of the Middle East, and after decades of turmoil, many Chinese are experiencing stability and a little prosperity for the first time. Revolutions don't happen when people believe their lives are getting better.

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