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For Chinese, Violence in the Middle East Sparks Debate on Democracy, Stability

A picture of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, deleted from Sina Weibo (via Freeweibo/Fair Use) -

A picture of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, deleted from Sina Weibo (via Freeweibo/Fair Use) -

This article by Lotus Yuen originally appeared on Tea Leaf Nation on September 17, 2013 and is republished as part of a content sharing agreement.

Recent months have been rocky for the Middle East: harsh crackdowns on protesters in Egypt and a Rashomon-like scenario in which the Syrian government and the rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons, just to name a few. The region’s great distance from China has not diminished Chinese netizens’ interest in its unrest. That is not only because of the shocking death tolls, but also because recent riots on Egyptian streets and violence in Syria have resonated with incidents from China’s own history and a number of social changes currently taking place within the country.

In the case of Egypt, reports have it that the tense standoff between its military government and protesters seeking the reinstatement of ousted president Mohamed Morsi was met with violence and blood on August 14, a day when the most deadly crackdown broke out in Cairo–with troops killing at least 638 people and injuring over 4,000. While some estimated the death toll on that day alone to be in the thousands, the exact figure remains unknown as Egypt’s Ministry of Health stopped updating the total casualty count from the crackdown on August 17 “because of the huge number of deaths.”

A week after Egypt’s deadly crackdown, the “specter of chemical weapons warfare” was seen in Syria, shocking the world as much as the violence in Egypt. According to Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary-General, the use of poison gas has led to over 1,400 deaths, with 5,000 people affected through contact with the chemical substance.

Both catastrophes were substantially covered by Chinese media and have at different times become top trending topics on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. While the two events shared some similarities, as both involved needless civilian deaths and long-standing power struggles, Chinese netizens focused on different aspects of the two stories.

In the case of Syria, where there has been more wrestling and negotiation between international powers, Chinese netizens analyzed the foreign policies of the United States, Russia, and China. China has long opposed international intervention in the Syrian conflict. Jokes like “Putin has betrayed President Xi?” and “It is quite difficult for China to play the role of the mistress” went viral when Russia and the United States announced a deal on Syria.

With Egypt’s unrest, however, netizens were more inclined to draw parallels between the country’s experiences and Chinese domestic issues. The reason behind this, arguably, is that state violence in Egypt against protesters reminds some Chinese of the deadly crackdown by the Chinese government against pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989, which, according to the Chinese government, resulted in 241 deaths and 7,000 injuries. Some organizations estimate the death toll may be as high as 2,000, or even 3,000. A number of articles and concerned Chinese netizens even referred to the incident as “Egypt’s Tiananmen Square.”

Screen capture of the Youku video on state violence in Egypt. An unarmed man is trying to block a military tank.

Screen capture of the Youku video on state violence in Egypt. An unarmed man is trying to block a military tank.

On Youku, a popular YouTube-like video-sharing platform in China, a news video showed a young, unarmed person standing in front of a military tank to block its way has received over ten thousand views so far. While user @qjy1 left an oblique comment—

相似的一切,总是上演,即使结果不同

Similar things happen all the time, though they may end with different results

Other veiled remarks were more obvious, as with the comment “8964” left by user “lonely maple tree” (@孤寂的枫), referencing the year, month and date of the Tiananmen crackdown.

Such vagueness is a must: words like “Tiananmen Massacre” (天安门大屠杀), “Tiananmen Uprising” and “June 4 incident” (六四事件) are sensitive words, meaning that posts discussing or even mentioning these phrases may be deleted, and in some cases, those who post such content may be “invited to drink tea” — a euphemism for being summoned by Chinese authorities and told to stop posting such political content.

In reaction to the tight censorship, Chinese netizens have developed a system of code words and oblique references to avoid filtration of their posts. When phrases as explicit as “Egypt’s Tiananmen Square” are eliminated from Sina Weibo, netizens again adopted the strategy of vagueness.

User @MrDominic uploaded a picture of a military tank and described it with four key words: “Egypt, protest, clearing up the scene, tank” User “Great person fatty Kim fallen from heaven” (@天降伟人金胖子 sarcastically remarked,

埃及有没有在坦克使用方面请教中国啊。

Did Egypt seek advice from China when it comes to employing tanks?

Another user, Lin Kailong (@林凯隆), was enthusiastic in offering sarcastic comfort to the Egyptian people,

若干年后,埃及会是一个幸福的国家,人人安居乐业。呵呵。我们也是这么过来的,经验之谈

Years from now, Egypt will become a happy country and its people will live and work in peace and contentment. Well, we’ve been through it all and I speak from experience.

Some, however, pointed out that the parallel was not a perfect one. Unlike in Egypt, where some pro-Morsi activists resorted to violence during the August 14 protest, the pro-democracy Chinese in Tiananmen Square sat quietly in protest and some activists among them turned to hunger strikes. While critics were quick to point out underlying differences between the two uprisings, Chinese netizens seemed more concerned about the discrepancies between the international community’s reactions to the clearing out of Tiananmen and Tahir squares. As Sina Weibo user “Lala Lizard” (@赖赖_Lizard) wrote,

没有任何本质区别的清场行动,24年发生的叫独裁镇压,现在埃及发生的叫民主镇痛,可笑的“政治正确”。

…the incident that happened 24 years ago was called an authoritarian crackdown while this one in Egypt was referred to as democracy [growing pains]. Ridiculous ‘political correctness.’

The definition of the Tiananmen incident as a “massacre” resulted in a number of unwanted consequences for the Chinese government. Immediately after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the People’s Liberation Army to disperse the protests, China was subject to widespread international condemnation, economic sanctions, and diplomatic isolation, arguably costing Beijing a chance to host the 2000 Summer Olympics. In contrast, while world leaders have roundly condemned Egypt’s generals, there’s been no talk of punishment akin to China’s.

Weibo users expressed disappointment at this. User “Lin's Babe” (@林家贝贝) wrote,

觉得还蛮奇怪的,为何埃及的军队这么快射杀集会人群,国际媒体这么平静?和24年前发生在中国的事情待遇截然不同,有时候双重标准真挺难接受的。

It is quite strange. Why does the international community remain quiet when the Egyptian troops were so quick to fire into the crowds? The reaction is so drastically different from what happened in China 24 years ago. Sometimes the double standard pains me.

Not all netizens clung to the past. Many instead regarded the situation in Egypt and in the Middle East at large as a reminder of existing social uncertainties in China.

While sympathy for the civilians in the Middle East was prevalent in the Chinese online community, a number of netizens displayed relief that China does not have to deal with such instability. Some went even further, deeming the bloody violence a warning to those who have been calling for democracy and social changes.

User Shaosong (@韶松) mocked,

看看埃及吧!不希望中国这样!希望公知们用良心想想,中国普通人到底要什么!

Just take a look at Egypt! [I] don’t want China to become like that. I hope public intellectuals can use their conscience to think about what ordinary Chinese people truly need.

In the eyes of user “Chinese medical doctor Qui Yen1″ @中医秋燕饵,

当然有比中国差的地方,你去叙利亚或者埃及,或者墨西哥试试,时刻被枪对着,动荡不安的滋味。乱世人不如狗。当然在一些启蒙派小清新看来,人命没有西方制度值钱,只要有西方制度,什么贫困,绑架,毒贩,都可以接受。

There are many places whose situations are worse than China’s. Just go to Syria or Egypt, or Mexico. You might have a gun pointed at you at any moment — it’s a feeling of living in turmoil, turmoil in which a human life is not even comparable to that of a dog. But surely to ‘the enlightened,’ human life is not as valuable as the Western system; as long as the Western system were there, anything–poverty, kidnapping, drug-dealing—would be acceptable.

Some were more direct. As user “Travel in a Time of Chaos” (@风云岁月旅程) wrote,

中国的“新自由主义”的“普世价值”的鼓吹者们,见鬼去吧!

Down with China’s ‘neo-liberals’ who propagate ‘universal values’!

Mr. Wang Xiaoshi, who became famous, or infamous, for writing an essay entitled “If China Experiences Unrest, It Will Be More Pathetic Than the USSR,” also joined in the debate. He remarked:

公知们把宪政(普世价值别称)解释成按宪法执政、依法治国以强化其口号的合法性。但贺卫方回应童之伟文章不慎泄露真相:所谓宪政就是要推翻社会主义宪法,而推行欧美那一套“政党制度、土地私有、司法独立、新闻自由、军队中立”等。埃及不正在猛抽宪政派的脸吗?

Public intellectuals explain constitutionalism—a word equivalent to universal values—as ‘rule of law’ so as to increase the legitimacy of this claim. But according to people like He Weifang [a well-known Chinese law professor], constitutionalism is the overthrowing of the socialist constitution and its replacement with a Western one that calls for ‘[changes in] party system, private ownership of land, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, and military neutrality. [The Communist Party currently controls the military.]’ But look at Egypt! Hasn’t it showcased how ridiculous the constitutionalists’ appeals are?

Some were far less strident than Wang, contending that it was not democracy that caused Egypt’s problems and the Middle East unrest in general, but an underdeveloped democracy.

User “Changjiang livecast” (@长江直播) offered up some “fundamental causes of the Syrian turmoil”:

一,阿萨德为首的利益集团独裁政权,把军队党化,牢牢掌控官僚政权。二,否定宪政,以权代法。三,血腥镇压维权民众和异见人士。四,国家资源被阿萨德几大家族垄断,利益分配严重不公。五,阿萨德复兴党渗透各个基层,人民言论等自由受到严格限制。六,控制打压言论

First, the interest group led by Assad maintains an authoritarian regime, incorporating the army into its own party and holding the bureaucratic regime tightly Second, they deny constitutionalism, replacing rule of law with rule by power. Third, they carry out a bloody crackdown on civilians and dissidents. Fourth, national resources are exclusively owned by the Assad family, which has caused unfair distribution of benefits. Fifth, pro-Assad individuals are present at all levels of society, limiting people’s freedom of speech. Sixth, they control and suppress speech.

After comparing various countries and regions, user “Reformer Liu Shengjun (@刘胜军改革) pointed out:

朝鲜告诉我们,不改革国家是没有希望的;突尼斯告诉我们,一味拒绝改革是危险的;埃及告诉我们,改革太晚政治家命运是悲惨的;叙利亚告诉我们,政治家不顺应历史潮流是民族的灾难;台湾告诉我们,及时改革是利国利己、彪炳史册的;越南告诉我们,渐进式政治改革是可行的

[The situation of] North Korea tells us that a nation without reforms is a nation with no hope; Tunisia tells us that it’s dangerous to universally reject reform; Egypt tells us that when reform comes too late, it means tragedy for the country’s politicians; Syria tells us that a government refusing to adapt to the changes of the times means disaster for its people; Taiwan tells us that that timely reforms are beneficial to the government as well as to its people; Vietnam tells us that that gradual reforms can work.

Liu Yu, a professor at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University and a respected intellectual, concluded that,

民主化难以包治百病,也不大可能一帆风顺,但如果有人试图以埃及的情况证明专制的“优越性”,则显然患上了选择性失明。

Democratization is not a cure-all. Nor would it be smooth sailing. But if someone is trying to prove the ‘superiority’ of autocracy using the example of Egypt, he is surely suffering from selective blindness.

According to Professor Liu, Egypt’s violence should be a lesson for China:

对于还在民主化的门槛外徘徊的国家及民众,更有意义的是积极准备,在民主化的浪潮到来之前努力弥合社会的、经济的、价值观的裂痕,为这一浪潮的来袭打造一艘坚固的大船。

For countries and peoples that are hesitating at the threshold of democratization, it would be more meaningful to make active preparations, to bridge societal, economical and values-related gaps before the wave of democratization arrives, in order to ensure that the ship [of the country] will be strong enough to survive it.

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