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China Overreacting to Fears of Arab-Spring Style Uprising

China’s repressive efforts to prevent its own Arab Spring, which included detaining renowned and outspoken artist Ai Weiwei — who was released Wednesday — just may be way overblown.
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Editor's Note: Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was released from jail late Wednesday after being detained for 80 days in Beijing. Here's a report published on April 5 that highlighted China's efforts to avoid its own Arab Spring, and how the reactions were overblown.

The People Republic of China's apparently prophylactic response to the popular uprisings in the Arab world seems to have claimed its highest profile figure so far, provocative and idiosyncratic artist Ai Weiwei.

The hirsute 53-year-old was acclaimed variously as the son of beloved poet Ai Qing, for his wide-ranging talents (from designing the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics to showing sunflower seeds at London’s Tate Modern) and for his most un-Chinese big mouth.

Ai's antigovernment statements and tweets had historically escaped Beijing's heaviest hand, perhaps for those first two reasons, and his detention has spawned fears about the “bad old days” returning to China. Whether that’s hyperbole or not, Western governments have pricked their ears at Ai’s case, although not enough to satisfy human rights watchers, who even before this case were calling this crackdown "the most severe in a decade."

"What has made Beijing, which has tolerated some demonstrations in recent years, show zero tolerance toward the current 'shadow revolution' that so far has not generated a single mass gathering?"

So asked Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California, Irvine, a historian of Chinese protest, in an April 1 article on that examined the ground where a Jasmine Revolution presumably might bloom.

Predicting exactly how China might react to dissent is a game that even longtime observers like Wasserstrom are chary of playing. Even with that caveat, Wasserstrom answered in part: “One reason, I feel, is that China’s leaders are scared not just of the prospect of something happening in their country that resembles events in the Middle East but also of historical upheavals that had wracked their own land when, as now, inflation was a problem and many members of the populace were frustrated by official corruption.”

Despite those real problems, those fears at the top — and Wasserstrom, for one, looks at the leadership change for hints of what may occur — may be overblown. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes Project survey finds Chinese remarkably upbeat about their station, in marked contrast to, say, Egypt. “It would be wrong to assume that the Chinese public is indifferent to the performance of their national or local governments,” wrote Pew’s director of international survey research James Bell. “In fact, news reports indicate that a good number of Chinese care enough about official corruption and government accountability to voice their concerns online or in other forums. But the Chinese public's overall state of mind is very distant from the pessimism that helped set the stage for massive protests in Egypt.”

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