The developments in Libya are making China's leadership nervous. Not only because it had to organize the evacuation of 30,000 Chinese out of the North African county and not only because Libya delivered some 150,000 barrels of oil every day to China in the month of January.
Most of all, Beijing fears that the virus of revolution could spill over to its own population, said the American political scientist Victoria Hui, an expert on comparative opposition movements in China and Europe.
"I think that the message of Egypt is already inspiring to the dissidents and very frightening to the regime," Hui, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, told Deutsche Welle. "If Gadhafi also falls despite the use of very brutal force and heavy weapons, then it's going to really send even stronger messages to both sides."
Clamping down on information
In the past few weeks, the Chinese government has already attempted to steer the stream of news from and about North Africa. Authorities intensified Internet censorship. On Chinese microblog sites, searches for terms such as Egypt or Jasmine showed no results.
According to Hui, dissidents and activists aren't the only ones learning a lesson from history. Governments such as China's are, as well.
"Beijing has been leading in designing the latest technology to control Internet access, in screening out things it doesn't want its citizens to see while still allowing general Internet access for commercial Web sites and just entertainment," Hui said. "So this is another reason why the people are not too upset because if I can just get what I want and keep my mouth shut, that's fine. It's a decent bargain for a lot of people."
Public discontent rising
China's economy has shown double-digit growth over the past two decades and large parts of the population benefit from this growth to various degrees. But the Chinese population is also expressing concern about increasing food costs, unaffordable housing, as well as high costs for health and education. Add to this the issues of misuse of power and corruption.
There is sensitivity among ruling Communist Party leaders to the public grumbling. Premier Wen Jiabao showed himself understanding in an online chat with Internet users on Sunday.
"If price rises become linked to the problems of graft and corruption, that will be enough to spark public discontent and even create serious social problems," Wen said.
This is why the Chinese leadership is trying to present itself as being responsive to the people. In January, Wen was the first Chinese premier to make an unprecedented visit to China's top petition bureau in Beijing, where ordinary citizens are allowed to file complaints about the government. He declared that the public should voice more of their criticisms and do more to supervise the government's work.
The country's media has also reported extensively on the social benefits in the next five-year plan, which the National People's Congress is set to pass at its annual session opening this coming Saturday.
The plan aims to reduce the social gap between rich and poor. Support for the unemployed and pensioners is supposed to be adapted to the inflation rate. More investments into affordable housing are planned.
No public protests, but strong security
Though the leadership is trying to appease public anger with the government, it has had no qualms in severely cracking down on any protest action. The US-based Chinese pro-democracy website Boxun last week urged citizens to gather for subtle "strolling" demonstrations each Sunday afternoon at designated locations in cities across China, but take no overt protest action, to highlight their dissatisfaction.
The anonymous call for protest didn't mobilize any demonstrators, but a large number of security forces who in turn cracked down on foreign media wanting to report on the event. According to Hui, most Chinese didn't even hear about the call.
"Just a very small number of people actually knew about the message and to those who knew, no one believed that anything would happen," Hui said.
The Chinese government, on the other hand, apparently took the appeal very seriously. Over 100 well-known government critics and human rights activists were detained or put under house arrest.
A hacker attack brought community website Boxun's servers to a standstill. In the meantime, the next calls for demonstrations for this coming Sunday have been posted on Facebook and Twitter. But they are just as inaccessible as Boxun in China.
With the session of the National People's Congress set to open, though, a sensitive period begins in the Chinese calendar. This virtual demonstration will also make its impact on the streets: without protests, but with a lot of police.
Author: Matthias von Hein / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge