China, Eyeing Mideast, Halts Even Minor Protests

“Clearly, the Chinese government has no small concern about the various populist revolutions that have broken out in the Middle East. I think they remember all too vividly what it was like to have their own main square – Tiananmen Square – occupied as it was in 1989 by young demonstrators with a democracy agenda,” says Orville Schell, Director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.

“I think their anxiety, while understandable, is not fully borne out by circumstances,” he adds. “I think most Chinese do feel that things are going pretty well in China, economically at least to date. Obviously there are some dissatisfied elements, but I don’t think that there’s the same level of cause for a populist uprising. But this has not done much to allay fears within the Chinese Communist Party that such a spark could light another prairie fire.

“I think this has meant that whereas you’ve had these Twitter-led calls for these stroll-ins, you’ve had a very substantial level of response by the security agencies in China. It suggests a concern and a wariness. And at the same time we have Prime Minister Wen Jiabao having an internet dialogue at the very time that one of these stroll-ins – in 12 or 14 cities around China – had been summoned, I think suggests two things: one, that they’re concerned, they want to distract people’s attention at that time; and also a genuine concern to hear what people are saying, lest the top party leaders be unaware of the state of disaffection that may exist down at the bottom.

“I think China at this point is incredibly interested in forging some sort of an ability for people to express their grievances in a way that might allow the party to diffuse them, lest it come to a head as it has throughout North Africa and the Middle East.”

Orville is in New York. To arrange an interview, contact the Asia Society communications department at 212-327-9271 or