BEIJING – The comparisons are inescapable, and for many pundits, irresistible. Thousands of jubilant protestors gathered under often tense and volatile circumstances on a landmark national square to voice opposition to their government. It could be Cair, it could be Beijing.
As the world waits to see how Egypt’s mass protests will end, talk of China’s own disastrous uprising in 1989 continues on. In China, the Tiananmen Square uprising is on the minds of many watching the situation in Egypt, and the political content is being carefully managed and filtered for China’s domestic audience.
Though the events leading to the mass protests in Beijing and across China in the spring of 1989 differ in details from what sparked demonstrations in Egypt, a showdown between power and the people might seem inevitable. The situation has grown more tense and uncertain in Cairo as protests have grown, and foreign journalists have been targeted for beating and detentions. Still, even the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman this week made a point of dismissing comparisons with Tiananmen — where China’s army turned on its own people.
“This is not Tiananmen Square,” Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told the BBC . “It will not become Tiananmen Square. Tahrir Square will remain a clean symbol for our political development.”
Yet while it’s relatively simple to dismiss parallels between the two events separated by thousands of miles and more than two decades, one thing is clear: Beijing is taking appearances seriously and carefully managing how and what information its citizens get about the ongoing protests in Egypt. China’s government message management is keenly aware of how social unrest and protests against authoritarian governments play at home.
For a wide breadth of Chinese people, events in Cairo and the rest of Egypt likely don’t mean much more than any other international news event. Shopping for vegetables in a Beijing market the day after China’s Lunar New Year holiday, 32-year-old Wang Jinglu said she wasn’t paying any special attention to what is happening there.
“We’re two different countries with different histories and different cultures. I don’t see a relationship,” she said, shrugging her shoulders when asked if Cairo’s protests had any bearing on China.
The country’s internet censors have blocked keywords “Egypt” and “Cairo” from well-subscribed micro-blogging sites, most notably Sina’s hugely popular Weibo platform. The discussion is open and flowing on other social media sites, but Twitter and Facebook are already blocked in China, accessible only to those with means to circumvent the Great Firewall. Experts have estimated that about 200,000 people in China use Twitter.
In the mainstream media, China’s government owned and managed newspapers, television and radio, the content has been straightforward, without much commentary. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has also declined any comment on the situation.
Chinese blogger and independent journalist Michael Anti said he has not been surprised by online reaction to the Cairo protests in China, nor to the government’s response. Traditional media needs to cover the demonstrations to satisfy readership, but China’s netizens have more leeway to compare Tahir to Tiananmen. Anti said the government will do what it must to squelch comparisons to Tiananmen, however.
“Remember, we had Tiananmen 22 years ago,” he said. “If there was any chance of unfiltered discussion, the June 4 story itself would lead the people to protest.”