This commentary by International Affairs Professor Fei-Ling Wang appeared in The New York Times' Room to Debate, February 28, 2011.
The revolutionary changes sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East have touched raw nerves in China. The struggling Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's citing of the “lesson of Tiananmen” certainly didn't help.
It is extraordinary to see that the Chinese state, growing rich and powerful, remains easily frightened.
To prevent unrest, the Chinese government has predictably employed sophisticated media and Internet censorship, as well as enhanced police presence in many cities. Yet so far, the calls for gatherings for the "Jasmine Revolution" have seemed more like pranks, attracting the attention of some spectators and journalists but almost no real protesters. Regardless, many in the Chinese government have gone into a crisis mode, leading to, among other things, the “preventive” detention and jailing of some peaceful dissident writers and bloggers, including Ran Yunfei.
It is extraordinary to see that the Chinese state, growing rich and powerful and presiding over remarkable economic growth, remains easily frightened. Oftentimes, we see Beijing exhibit irrational nervousness, as though the government is stuck in perpetual fear of losing control. Despite the huge investments made and the latest technology employed to impose order and stability, the mighty Chinese state often behaves like it is only one tiny misstep away from a total collapse.
A key reason for this paradoxical sense of insecurity, as it has been suggested by many already, is the profound and growing incompatibility between China’s rapidly expanding economy and diversifying society and the essentially unchanged political system and governance structure, which breed corruption and injustice, making social conflicts and tensions worse.
A confident and powerful government should not be so deeply distrustful of its own people, many of whom feel genuinely proud of the country's achievements over the past three decades. A repeat of 1989 is not an option. Festering grievances and conflicts must be taken seriously, and the people given recourse. To head off large disturbances, Beijing must figure out a smarter way to govern a nation of 1.3 billion.