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Egypt: The Role of The Internet and Why Beijing is Watching

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There’s nothing the social media and tech mavens like doing more than talking up social media and its influence.

In Iran, that influence turned out to be overplayed, and the ‘Green Revolution’ fizzled out. But in Tunisia and Egypt, it seems like it did indeed play a major organizational role, at least in catalyzing the original clashes. The Iranian police state proved itself much more adept at manipulating social media for its own ends. Plus it had the added advantage of dealing with a rebellion that was bourgeois in origin. The Egyptian riots seem to have a far wider social base, which may prove to be crucial. It’s interesting to note that in both Tunisia and Egypt, satellite cities away from the capital played a big role in fomenting the rebellion.

But regardless of the social pattern, it’s clear to Thereisnoplan that the internet is a crucial part of the equation in Egypt, which explains why it was cut off. Washington has been watching closely, but I’m guessing that Beijing has been taking note too.

China has overheated its economy pretty nicely. A real estate bubble, a more educated, and connected population with vastly increased expectations, inflation levels near the tipping point, and a depressed international consumer economy are adding real pressure for political change. And while China’s conciliatory approach to human rights and democratic change is probably just talk, unlike their distaste for the current Nobel Peace Prize recipient – they’re getting closer and closer to a time when concrete decisions will have to be made.

Capitalism is unsettling. It makes poor people want what richer people have, it makes richer people want more, and it makes both rich and poor think that they can attain their goals. Everyone is restless, nobody is happy, and when they’re not satisfied they want to be able to express that dissatisfaction, and to have their grievances heard and acted upon by their representatives – usually elected. The apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party isn’t built like that. Up until now, China was so poor that it could catch up with the rest of the world and maintain Communist power. But those times are coming to an end.

And the wild card, even the potential decisive factor, is the Internet. The Internet gives the masses the two things Beijing least want them to have – knowledge and the ability to communicate quickly, efficiently, and laterally. ┬áIt’s clear that China’s leaders are terrified by the Internet. They censor it, block it, cajole its leaders, but they can’t ultimately control a fluid, ever changing phenomenon. Ultimately, it will prevail, because people want it to. What’s happening in Egypt is probably sending chills down the collective Communist Party spine.

If the Chinese economy melts down in the next decade, which is a distinct possibility, another Tiananmen Square could be cranked up by Social media, the internet and cellphones really, really easily. The student flashmob could grow and grow and get noisier and noisier, very fast. And if they refuse to go home like they refused to do twenty-two years ago, new demonstrations could pop up in other major Chinese cities in hours. Suddenly, the Communist Party would be faced with a nationwide scenario where its authority is threatened, and the party would face an intolerable choice. Fire or back down. If they fire, they could fan the flames and ultimately be consumed by them in which case China enters a period of instability and potential chaos which would reverberate across the entire planet. If they don’t, they open the door to the vagaries of change which could also very conceivably swallow them up.

The Internet is a beast that Beijing can’t control, and ultimately they know it. Access to it is a privilege a new Chinese generation accepts as a right. Remove it or choke it off and you pay the price. Allow it to grow and you lose control. The choices that Chinese leaders are going to be forced to make are choices they will most decidedly not like like making.

Add in festering economic issues and there’s a heady cocktail brewing.

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Written by coolrebel

January 29, 2011 at 1:15 am