Note I didn’t ask if they would backfire, but when. Who will it backfire against? Against the CCP, I suspect. (No, not with revolution, but with increasingly brazen protests against the government.) Otherwise, they wouldn’t be acting so nervous.
China’s ruling Communist Party, backed by a sophisticated Internet filtering system, an army of cyber-cops, a vigilant public security apparatus and an extensive informant network, is quick to shut down the slightest hint of a political movement. Yet it has allowed Patriots’ Alliance and other anti-Japan groups to galvanize the nation, leading to an outpouring of rage that has brought tens of thousands of Chinese into the streets and has prompted attacks on Japanese companies, embassies and consulates.
Behind Beijing’s apparent acquiescence was a belief that it could harness public protests to serve its own aims, analysts say. But some China experts warn that party leaders are taking a risk: public resentment, once unleashed, can be difficult to contain.
“Once you mount the tiger, it’s hard to dismount,” said Nicholas Becquelin, Hong Kong-based research director with Human Rights in China. “They made use of the nationalism but found it a little more difficult to contain than they expected once its usefulness was over.”
A meeting between President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Saturday failed to produce a breakthrough in the monthlong tensions as Hu called on Japan to back up its words of remorse with action. But China is clamping down hard on potential demonstrators, blanketing likely protest sites with a large police presence and using media controls and its extensive security machine to quell unrest.
Most ominous of all, in the CCP’s eyes, is that technology made it incredibly easy for organizers to plan, man and coordinate nationwide demonstrations. That will make them step up censorship efforts, and that, too can contribute to a backlash against them.
This article references the recently released Rand report [PDF] on internal protests in China, which soared to 58,000 separate incidents in 2003 mainly fueled by wealth imbalance, corruption and an ineffective legal system. There is some real wisdom here, and I’d like to include a generous snip:
The ultimate risk of China’s new more permissive containment and management strategy is that security officials – for any number of reasons – may find themselves losing control of a major demonstration, which then grows and spreads. Were that to happen, the Chinese government would find itself once again in the situation it faced at the height of the Cultural Revolution or in the Spring of 1989 – forced to choose between employing far greater violence to restore order, or engage in a renegotiation of power with society and the protestors. In the past, this difficult choice has always resulted in a serious split among the Party leadership over how best to restore control….
…China has taken a much riskier step beyond its emerging protest strategy of permissive containment and management” by attempting to tacitly “stage manage” angry young nationalist protestors. The leadership clearly hopes to ride this wave,buttress its popular nationalist credentials, and mobilize this popular anger as a diplomatic tool in its dealings with Japan over issues such as textbooks, Security Council membership, and security cooperation with the US to protect Taiwan. China can now claim – probably correctly – that its people would not stand for significant concessions on these issues.
But Beijing has chosen to run major risks that could end up creating serious challenges for its domestic stability and its foreign policy. By aligning itself tacitly with the protestors (notwithstanding its public calls for restraint), it risks having its policies
boxed-in or manipulated by protestor demands. Many in Japan and other countries now clearly feel that, by treating these demonstrations more permissively than it does most demonstrations, Beijing has to some extent assumed responsibility for damage caused by the protestors. Moreover, whereas the Belgrade bombing was in many ways a one-time event in which popular anger was likely to cool later, China’s disagreements with Japan have both a longer history and an indefinite future. Beijing has also legitimized protests led by a network of anti-Japanese groups that exist in the gray area of China’s emerging “civil society”, and which are not as tightly controlled by the state. As a result, China will have to decide whether or not to authorize similar demonstrations again and again in
the future – and press sources yesterday reported that these same groups plan to march again tomorrow. Perhaps worse, if Beijing finds it must use coercion to limit the protestors, it risks putting its security forces in the dangerous position of being seen as the “protectors” of the “unrepentant Japanese” – a very dangerous situation for a government that has staked its claims to legitimacy on nationalism and economic growth.
Is the government playing with dynamite, or does it have a way to control the masses and channel the aggression it helps foment in a manner that suits its purposes? Maybe we’ll know the next time there’s a major spark of social unrest.