China’s Arab Spring Cyber Lessons
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

China’s Arab Spring Cyber Lessons


As the Arab Spring turns to autumn, observers around the world are piecing together what happened this year, why, and where – if anywhere – it might happen next. And, as they have done so, the Internet’s role in aiding the dramatic political transformations has perhaps inevitably come to the fore. 

Throughout the Middle East, protestors have employed Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, cell phone texting and other technologies to organize and spread news at home and to the outside world. The use of these new communications tools has inspired Western governments, among others, to act. The US State Department, for example, plans to spend more than $25 million on Internet freedom programming this year, and Congress has given the Broadcasting Board of Governors an additional $10 million to develop technologies that would empower Internet activists abroad. But democratic governments aren’t the only ones reacting to the Arab Spring. Autocracies, including China, which hosts the world’s most sophisticated online control regime, are drawing their own lessons.

Last week, Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security urged police to use microblogs to ‘guide public opinion’ and ‘pay attention to hot topics people are talking about on the Internet.’ This represents just the latest step China has taken to guard against online echoes of the Arab Spring. In the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, Beijing blocked Internet search requests for key words and phrases including ‘Egypt,’ ‘Cairo’ and ‘Jasmine’ – a reference to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. After protests in Inner Mongolia in May, Weibo – China’s version of Twitter – filtered out results of searches for the province’s name. And Beijing recently established a State Internet Information Office to better regulate the flow of online information.

As China and other regimes fine tune their Internet controls, they appear to have discerned at least four specific lessons from the Middle East revolutions.

First, there are real economic costs to Internet repression. According to OECD estimates, Egypt’s five-day Internet shutdown cost the country at least $90 million. Even after Egyptian officials pulled the plug on the Internet near the height of Tahrir Square protests, they left the Cairo Stock Exchange connected. Given China’s greater economic dependence on global information systems, it can ill-afford such losses and has mostly avoided widespread Internet interruption.

Second, Beijing’s more nuanced approach to monitoring and censorship works far better than the blunt tactics – including full shutdowns and extreme bandwidth restrictions – that have been employed by some Middle Eastern governments. These blunt moves can backfire; after Cairo turned off its people’s Internet access, the protest grew larger, not smaller. China, on the other hand, allows citizens to vent some frustrations via microblogs and social networks, and to engage in all manner of non-political expression, clamping down only when things get out of hand. At least in the short run, the Chinese model of Internet control seems far more effective.

Third, online dissent produces significant political change only if it results in offline protest. Despite widespread cyber protests, the Mubarak regime only began to teeter when thousands of citizens physically occupied Tahrir Square. Beijing and other regimes may be turning this to their advantage. A web posting earlier this year on the US-based Chinese language website called on activists to stage China’s own ‘Jasmine Revolution.’ Although there was no widespread turnout of demonstrators, security teams and plainclothes officers flooded the scene to arrest any protestors. Some observers have speculated that the Chinese government itself was behind the web posting in order to draw out those brazen enough to engage in offline dissent.

Finally, and most fundamentally, there’s emerging evidence that these new communications technologies can, in fact, facilitate political change. A recent report in Technology Review, for instance, found that the Internet provided the right conditions to those agitating for democratic change in Tunisia: anonymity, meaningful connections and, perhaps most importantly, a voice. In light of this year’s developments, Beijing appears to have devoted ever greater resources and energies to regulating every aspect of the Internet, from managing content to producing online propaganda.

China now has more Internet users than the entire population of the United States. It’s impossible to tell what impact online communications will have on Chinese politics over the long run, but Beijing is taking a vast array of steps to bolster its defences in the short term. Chinese cyber dissidents are sure to have a much more difficult time wielding the Internet to foment political change than did their Arab counterparts. This alone suggests the importance of the United States’ Internet freedom efforts. As they pursue an array of complex but productive ties with Beijing, the democratic countries of the world should stand up for the value of online freedom – especially as the autumn turns to winter.


Richard Fontaine is a Senior Advisor at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and former foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain. Will Rogers is a Research Associate at CNAS. They are the authors of Internet Freedom: A Foreign Policy Imperative in the Digital Age.   

October 11, 2011 at 10:15

@John Chan: Anything else you want to unload (lie, fabricate…) for the community to read? :)

October 11, 2011 at 10:13

@Huang: you’re amazing! How did you have access to such secretive info to share with me? :)

jeff forsythe
October 9, 2011 at 10:49

When are we going to realize that we are not supposed to be dealing with Red China whatsoever ?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a gangster regime that has murdered tens of millions of its own people and is now attempting the genocide of tens of millions of innocent Falun Gong practitioners.
The proof is in the pudding. The more business a Western country does with this brutal regime the more its economy fails. What goes around comes around !
The West should should forget all about its obsession with riches and go back to a time when it cherished human rights. A hard thing to do but most good things are.
Just my understanding, thank you.

October 8, 2011 at 10:35

There is absolutely no need to mobilize tanks and infantries to the DownTown New York City’s Wall Street area– the NYCPD is more than capable of controling and in-consistencies that may occured. Besides, the crowd gathered in the New york area is minute compare to the massive number of ill-informed and innocent Chinese young people at Tianamen Square more than two decades ago.
Your failed badly on your observation skills when you were trying to show the contrasts between the two remotely similar relative to the make up of the gathering crowds and the size of the demonstrations to express your fixed negativity.
Furthermore,the Tianamen incident was planned,orchstrated,funded,and finally carried out by foreign schemes exactly one decade after China launched the new policies of reforms and openning up. Contrary to Tianamen Square,the Wall Street sit-ins is purely started by American people – NO external forces is involved or supported behind the scene.
The Arab Spring and continued protests in Syria may not have been anticipated by the US, yet the US and Western nations were adding fuel to the already burning bush fires once they were ablazed.
Observation means looking at the whole picture-not picking out parts there of. Hence,your might be best go by the blog-name of Cherry-picker.

John Chan
October 8, 2011 at 08:07

Tiananmen Square was a farce created by Westpac’s black information network thru thin air to undermine and smear China.

But shooting dead unarmed natives who tried to protect their ancestors’ burial ground, and new immigrant looking for Mom at airport by the trigger happy RCMP are real and not a fabrication like Tiananmen Square farce.

October 7, 2011 at 21:23

It just proves that the average person cares about their personal wealth. As long as there’s money, they don’t care if the government is authoritarian.

October 7, 2011 at 04:28

@John Chan: If the setting is Tianamen square instead of NY, and the “critical mass” is chinese in stead of Americans, we would, by now, see tanks running over people…

John Chan
October 7, 2011 at 01:16

“I would argue that if that critical mass was to be reached, it would not matter how much internet censorship was enacted.” This statement can apply all over the world, not just in China. If critical mass is reached in the Wall St. American Spring protest, the USA will have civil war again and USA will be broken into 6 pieces.

If critical mass is reached in the Jasmine Revolution in London and other parts in UK, UK will have civil war no matter how much brutality the police put on the angry and suppressed people in UK. I can quote endless examples in the European nations.

October 6, 2011 at 00:28

I was living in Dalian for most of the Arab Spring uprisings and my experience with the internet was fairly similar to what time I had spent in China roughly a year prior. Though there was a tendency to disconnect more frequently and website browsing was vastly slower than downloading torrents but other than that it was more of the same. Of course it should probably be noted that my VPN was simply a friend’s server to which I was presumably the only person in mainland China connecting. Some of my university friends with less discreet VPNs told me they were having issues.

This is just my opinion, but I think a large percentage of those pro-status quo posters on China forums are CCP members or government employees. Their English is usually way too on point. China being so opaque and the great firewall being a very active and vastly staffed entity rather than the passive algorithm many envision IMO this isn’t a far fetched conclusion. But I’m also of the opinion that the Chinese people hold much more nuanced political views than the west would tend to believe. The person obviously will remain unnamed, but I do remember a conversation in which a Chinese acquaintance conveyed to me that Chinese journalism was bu hao because it was “hóngse” (red). This was stated very publicly and most of the time she was fairly nationalistic.

October 5, 2011 at 10:23

The internet,the fiber-optic cable,the ever increasing processing power of our computing devices and many others define the new and revolutionary age of information technologies where changes are occuring by the months not by years or decades as in the past. As in every other technologies, how we utilize or handle the tools at our disposal define the usefulness, destructiveness of our own invention.
Young people today enjoy the readily access to informations(for learning purposes)that did exist or available to their old generations. They can browse the web, search,view,acquire(download),and send informations at a click of the mouse. These previliges can only be sustained and maintained by a stable political,social,economic environment- any deviations from a stable environment would automatically render the web freedoms or freedom to access dis-functional.
Hence, China’s sincere efforts and deligent approaches were intended to do good by the implimentations or the utilizations of different tools at its disposal to safeguard the un-interrutpted flow of environmentally sound contents or antural flows of positive thinkings NOT damaging to the over-all social system.
In short, as the article pointed out, the Chinese government is responsible for the largest internet user population on the globe. Since no other society were or are managing this huge number of web users, the Chinese methods should be observed and learned,not blindly criticizing the Chinese government just for the sake of criticisms- A bad habit that is long past of its time.
P.S. The Arab Spring phenominon is still too early to be judged whether it was a political new beginning or the beginnng on a road to nowhere. Gradual changes will always be less traumatic than abrupt and violent changes as shown again and again in human history. Of course, changes for the better are hopes and dreams of every human on Earth. Internet freedoms without social and economic destructions is the way to go! Internet freedoms as an ideal and not a useful educational tool is the way to be OUT(to where? I don’t know.)

yang zi
October 5, 2011 at 08:57

The Jasmine spring in China is made up. I have advocated the strategy. that is to claim to have an assembly on a really busy spot, the police will show up, curious people will watch and wondering, reporters will take pictures and police will try to stop them and causing more confusion, all these can happen without a single protester having to show up.

Unfortunately people started taking credits, police stopped showing up, thus ruined the good show.

October 4, 2011 at 23:11

Having been living in Beijing during the whole Jasmine Revolution call took place and when NATO intervened in Libya, I can tell that the monitoring was, at times, blunter than the article makes it to be. Working in a a largely Westerner-populated company, we found our VPNs and Proxies frequently dropping off and the internet in generally having immense bouts of slowdowns that we did not experience beforehand. At the time, I commented that it resembled a tug of war. Our VPN would drop, we would manage to find a new version of it which would drop about a day or so later. It *has* been much less dispruptive than total shutdown though.

Interestingly, I was browsing around some Chinese forums at the time and I remember numerous posts by non-moderators making comments that amounted to “Stop it with all the complaining. We got a good thing going right now. Don’t ruin it for the rest of us”.

Of course, it is hard to be sure how many of such posters are real and how many are sockpuppets. But I do believe that the reason China had not had a revolt yet is because, for all the little flare ups, discontent has not reached critical mass. There is still a huge chunk of the population willing to keep their heads low as long as they are doing well and an even larger portion of the population who is happy with, or at least indifferent towards what is going on. I would argue that if that critical mass was to be reached, it would not matter how much internet censorship was enacted.

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