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This file photo taken on May 1, 1989 shows Wang Dan (centre), a leading Chinese dissident during 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations addressing foreign correspondents in Beijing. (CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)
This file photo taken on May 1, 1989 shows Wang Dan (centre), a leading Chinese dissident during 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations addressing foreign correspondents in Beijing. (CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Unrest in China? Six experts weigh in Add to ...

Jin Canrong, deputy director of the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China

What are the chances of the wave of antiauthoritarian unrest spreading from the Middle East to China? It is impossible, says Prof. Jin. "The call [last weekend for a Tunisia-inspired Jasmine Revolution in China]on boxun.com is evidence that there are no social conditions that compare to the Middle East."

But why, then, does the government expend so much energy suppressing any hint of dissent?

"Chinese politicians are always very nervous. That's their problem. But as an observer, I consider China's situation very different from that of the Middle East."

Prof. Jin said there are several reasons that China would not see a popular uprising in the near future. China is successful economically, he said, and its power structure more diverse and less corrupt than the regimes of Hosni Mubarak or Moammar Gadhafi. China's population is also much older than the young and anxious nations of the Middle East. And while there is widespread popular consensus in the Arab world about the need to throw off dictatorship, there is heated debate even among China's 450 million Internet users about the merits of one-party rule, he said.

Daniel Bell, professor of ethics and political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing

Prof. Bell says a pro-democracy uprising in China is not only unlikely, it may also be undesirable from the West's point of view. "I think it's important to cheer for some things: more freedom of speech, more social justice - but multiparty democracy might not be what we should be cheering for, at least not now."

He said he worried that if a popular revolution took place in the China of 2011, it could quickly deteriorate into "chaos, followed by a populist strongman (coming to power). It could be something like Vladimir Putin in Russia, it could be something worse."

The Montreal-born Prof. Bell added that while the Chinese have many of the same grievances as the Egyptians did (a lack of political freedoms, corruption, a widening gap between rich and poor, as well as rising food prices), China's power structure, with its nine-man Politburo atop many smaller, localized centres of authority, is also very different from the strictly top-down dictatorships of the Middle East. It is thus more flexible in its ability to respond to and manage unrest.

Zhang Yajun, 29-year-old Beijing-based blogger (from her post this week "A Chinese Perspective on the 'Jasmine Revolution' " on granitestudio.org):

"The chances of a 'Jasmine Revolution' - never mind anything on the scale of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests - are quite small, at least for the foreseeable future. The main reason being that discontent towards the government in China hasn't translated into meaningful opposition.


"China today is different from 1989. Over the last 20 years, rapid economic growth has raised the standard of living to an unprecedentedly high level. Most families enjoy a lifestyle that previous generations couldn't have even imagined. For example, my mom could only afford a small piece of sugar for lunch during the Great Famine in 1960, but her daughter travelled in three continents before she turned 25. Few urban Chinese seem eager to trade their chance at prosperity for dreams of revolution. …

"[But]with so many people in China having access to televisions, cellphones, and the Internet, information is more available than ever before in our history. Ordinary people can learn about their rights. If their rights are violated by officials or government, they want to fight to protect them. If the government doesn't find solutions, and fails to reform a political system that is the root cause of many of these problems, then eventually these smaller, local issues will link together and trigger national discontent, or even revolution."

Gordon Chang, author of the 2001 book The Coming Collapse of China :

"In the middle of December, no one thought that protesters could mass in the streets of any Arab nation. Now, two autocrats have been toppled and more are on the way out. Pundits can give you dozens of reasons why the Communist Party looks invulnerable, but they are the same folks who missed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the toppling of governments in the colour revolutions (in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan), and the recent uprisings in the Arab world.

"All the conditions that existed in the Arab states are present in China. Keep an eye on inflation, which brought people out in the streets in 1989. People think that an economy has to turn down for revolution to occur. In China, all you need is the mismanagement of growth.

"The essential problem for the Communist Party is that almost everyone believes the country needs a new political system. That thought has seeped into people's consciousness and is shared across society. So China can 'tip,' to use the phrase popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, because enough people think the same way. …

"The only precondition for mass demonstrations is that people lose their fear. If some event crystallizes emotions, like the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in the middle of December, then China's people will take to the streets."

Perry Link, emeritus professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers :

"I think it is quite unlikely. If you add up the portions of the population that are a) part of the [Chinese Communist Party]vested-interest group, b) bought off, c) intimidated, and d) perhaps mad as hell but unorganized - because the CCP decapitates any organization before it gets far - then you've got, by far, most of the population.

"The key [to an uprising]- but I don't know how it would happen - would be to have the elite-dissident level hook up with the mass discontent over things like corruption, bullying, land seizures, environmental stew, etc. If that happened, the regime could flip. I think the regime knows this, which is why they are so nervous, and so assiduous about repressing things like Charter 08 [the pro-democracy manifesto penned by jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and others] news from North Africa, and the like."

Wang Dan, student leader during the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square, now living in exile in Taiwan and the United States

Wang Dan has been in prison or exile for nearly all of the 22 years that have passed since pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed by the People's Liberation Army on June 4, 1989. Nonetheless, the 41-year-old was one of the first to jump on board when a mysterious group called for the Chinese to stage a "Jasmine Revolution" inspired by recent events in the Middle East.

On his Facebook page, Mr. Wang posted the call for Chinese citizens to gather at designated locations in 13 cities and call for change.

"I think it was quite successful, because this was an experiment and a beginning, and we all saw how nervous the government was. I never expected that there will be huge number of people [who]went to those locations, but I believe that his kind of event can be a model for further potential revolution."

Mr. Wang said the surest sign that new unrest in China was plausible was the government's overreaction to the small "Jasmine" gatherings last weekend. Key dissidents were detained ahead of time, and hundreds of police officers were deployed to the designated protest sites.

"Nobody knows exactly under what conditions there will be a revolution, that's the reason the government [is]worried."

Asked what he thought it would take for people to take to the streets again as they did in 1989, Mr. Wang pointed to the same thing that triggered much of the recent unrest in the Middle East - food prices, which have risen sharply in recent months in China.

"If the inflation situation gets worse, there must be social disorder," he said.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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