Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Shots heard round the world

Last year there were over 74,000 protests in China. Last week there was one that made news. It made news because the local authorities decided it would be a good idea to break up the protest--by shooting into the crowd.

For however bad it will make me seem, I think the fallout from this incident is going to be far larger than simply shooting between 3 and 20 farmers and fishermen.

Because it's gone from being an event to being a cause. And it's championed by "Chinese Intellectuals." In most of the western world we don't think much about an open letter to the government signed by....University professors, or writers, or even Nobel Laureates. When it happens in China it's a big deal. Especially when it's not just signed and delivered. No, this time it was signed and posted online. For the world to see.

Not only did these intellectuals call for an investigation into what happened, and punishments for those who made the decision to fire into the crowd--both of which are pushing the envelope of "OK behavior" in the world's fastest growing economy. No, they took it a step further.

They draw parallels between the shootings last week and the way the government dealt with another mass-uprising a few years ago in Tiananmen square. In case you don't remember what happened then, here's a refresher picture.

There aren't any really good analogies to U.S. political life. I guess the closest would be describing some action of a modern administration as similar to the way Native Americans were systematically exterminated. The big difference of course being that a U.S. government and U.S. citizens are aware that it happened. Not necessarily the case for Chinese about 1989.

Most likely what will happen is that the Chinese government will crack down on those who published the letter, and then after they have been sufficiently castigated, steps will be taken to punish the perpetrators of the shooting.

Even this, though, isn't the likely end of the story. Beijing is hosting the summer olympics in 2008. The Chinese are all particularly excited for that to happen. But those who are dissatisfied with the way things work in China are just as excited. Because when the olympics start, China is going to be overrun with journalists. It'll be next-to-impossible to keep an eye on all of them. But more significant than that, the country is going to be inundated with tourists. From the U.S., from Europe, from Japan and South Korea. From all over the world. And the people with the money to afford a trip to China for the Olympics are the same kind of people who will pack their digital cameras, digital video cameras, camera phones, and all the other tricks of the tourism trade. My guess is that there will be serious upheval around China in the month preceeding and following the Olympics, because there will be too many foreigners beaming too many images to the rest of the world for Beijing to keep it under wraps.

Even if that doesn't happen, it'll be an interesting year for Chinese. I'm only hoping that the government can find ways to let people participate in decision-making enough that there wont have to be riots and protests--and shootings--just to make the point that some of the people involved in governing aren't doing a very good job.

No comments: