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Tenzin Dorjee

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Tiananmen 2.0: Why China Is Not Immune to the Tunisia Effect

Posted: 02/24/11 12:10 PM ET

Last spring, I was waiting for a bus in Cairo. Dawn was just breaking, and Tahrir Square, where the bus station was located, was empty except for the omnipresent face of Hosni Mubarak, on posters that covered giant billboards and buildings all over the city. In the cafes where men sipped tea and smoked hookahs, there was no smell of a revolution brewing. Instead, there was a lingering sense of resignation that the country might be condemned to live under Mubarak forever.

Less than a year later in January, images of the Egyptian revolution flashed across TV screens worldwide, and Tahrir Square had become unrecognizable! As people power explodes across the Arab world ­-- first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, now in Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere -- one can't help but wonder if we may be witnessing the fourth wave of democratization. If so, can 1.5 billion people living under the Chinese Communist Party ride this wave to democracy and freedom?

Before the dust has settled on the Arab spring, analysts are citing poverty, unemployment and corruption as the three main causes of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Arguing that these socioeconomic conditions and statistics are missing in today's China, some are quick to dismiss any possibility of Beijing's rule being shaken by the Tunisia effect. But let us remember an enduring lesson from history. Statistics don't make revolutions; people do.

A few years ago, I traveled to Palestine to attend a conference on nonviolence with a friend of mine. One evening, after the panels and workshops were over, we found ourselves sitting with the pioneering theorist of nonviolent conflict, Dr. Gene Sharp. Discussing the likelihood of mass protests in Tibet and China, we asked him what he thought was the single most important ingredient to make a revolution.

"Hope," he answered, without a moment's hesitation, in a tone that indicated mild surprise at how we could not know such a basic fact of life.

People rise up not just because they are poor or unemployed; people rise up when they believe change is possible. After the success of the Tunisian revolution, millions of Egyptians suddenly found new hope and poured into the streets to demand change. In fact, in both Tunisia and Egypt, the revolution was not led by the poor and unemployed; it was organized and largely executed by the educated, online, middle class youth who wanted a say in the way their country was run. If revolutions are created by poverty and unemployment, why are we seeing an uprising in Bahrain, an international banking center with an educated, middle class majority? If Chinese youth are financially better off today than a decade ago, it makes them more -- not less -- likely to demand freedom and democracy.

However, while hope can mobilize people, it cannot guarantee success, which depends on strategy and tools. The mass convergences in Tunis and Cairo that filled our TV screens for weeks were preceded by months and years of behind-the-scenes strategic planning, training and organizing by groups of activists and youth leaders, who wielded the power of the internet in their nonviolent struggle.

The internet has decentralized power and exponentially strengthened the grassroots. Wael Ghonim, one of the heroes of the Egyptian uprising, said it best, "If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet." According to Mr. Ghonim, who aptly called their uprising "Revolution 2.0," the Egyptian revolution began online.

Is China ready for a revolution 2.0? There are nearly half a billion internet users in China today. China's social media networks are expanding rapidly -- Chinese Facebook look-alike Renren has 170 million users and microblogging site Sina has 75 million users. In spite of China's great firewall, Chinese netizens have learned to circumvent the censors and read between the lines. When "Egypt" disappears from the internet, they can surmise that Cairo is in tumult. In the age of the internet, any battle against information is futile.

Nevertheless, the ultimate success of a revolution in China will depend on the effective use of strategy. In Egypt and Tunisia, activists and organizers connected with other pro-democracy forces including the Serbian youth movement that helped topple Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. They gathered in living rooms and watched films such as "Bringing Down a Dictator" about the Serbian uprising, and read books like From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp, internalizing the lesson that nonviolent movements are more powerful when they are planned strategically than when they happen spontaneously. If Chinese activists can analyze the strategic decisions within the 1989 Tiananmen movement and draw lessons from its failure, they will have a much higher chance of succeeding the next time.

Some believe the Chinese state is too ruthless to allow a nonviolent revolution, arguing that protesters will be arrested long before they reach a critical mass. But mass protest, although the most visible, is hardly the most effective form of nonviolent resistance. In places where the crackdown on street protests is swift and brutal, noncooperation and civil disobedience tactics are often more advisable. These tactics of denying obedience to the rulers, while reducing the risk of arrest and increasing the sustainability of the movement, have crippled ruthless regimes.

Largely unknown to the world, Tibetans today are engaging in a growing noncooperation movement. Since a 2008 uprising erupted across Tibet, China's militarization of the Tibetan plateau has snuffed out all signs of dissent in the streets. But the revolution did not disappear; it simply moved indoors. Tibetans are now making a conscious effort to speak only in Tibetan, to eat only in Tibetan restaurants, or to buy only from Tibetan shops. Tibetans are channeling their spirit of resistance into social, cultural and economic activities that are self-constructive (promoting Tibetan language and culture) and non-cooperative (refusing to support Chinese institutions and businesses). The fact that Tibetans are able to wage a quiet, slow-building nonviolent movement in the most repressive political climate shows that there is a way to mobilize people power against the Chinese regime.

In spite of China's image as a high-functioning economy, many of the social causes of mass discontent that exploded in the Arab world -- endemic corruption, income inequality, labor unrest, inflation, pollution -- continue to plague the nation. Since 2008, China has witnessed the Tibetan uprising, the Uyghur uprising in East Turkestan, and 90,000 mass incidents of public unrest each year. The Chinese government spends almost as much money on maintaining internal security as on its national defense. This underlines the overwhelming danger the regime faces from within its own empire.

2011 marks exactly a century since a previous generation of Chinese overthrew the Manchu dynasty and established a republic that lasted till 1949. This week, as organizers of a "Jasmine Revolution" issued calls for protest rallies every Sunday in thirteen cities in China, I started to feel that the stars are aligned against dictatorships everywhere. If the Chinese people seize this opportunity by combining nonviolent tools with strategic planning, they stand to liberate a quarter of the world's population. It is about time.


Tenzin Dorjee is a writer, musician and activist. He is the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet.