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

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 covered substantially by Chinese media and at different times have 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 in Egypt as “Egypt’s Tiananmen Square.”

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—“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 @孤寂的枫, referencing the year, month, and date of the Tiananmen crackdown.

Such vagueness is a must: words like “Tiananmen Massacre,” “Tiananmen Uprising,” and “June 4 incident” 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 @天降伟人金胖子 sarcastically remarked, “Did Egypt seek advice from China when it comes to employing tanks?” ending his comment with a grinning emoticon. Another user, @林凯隆, was enthusiastic in offering sarcastic comfort to the Egyptian people, “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 @赖赖_Lizard wrote, “…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 has been no talk of punishment akin to China’s.

Weibo users expressed disappointment at this. User @林家贝贝 wrote, “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 @韶松 mocked, “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 @中医秋燕饵, “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 @风云岁月旅程 wrote, “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:

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 @长江直播 offered up some “fundamental causes of the Syrian turmoil”:

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 @刘胜军改革 pointed out:

[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, “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: “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.”