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Why Tahrir is No Tiananmen

By Chip Tsao | Feb 17, 2011

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If the Egyptians could do it, why can’t the Chinese?

While Tahrir Square was the frenzied center of their uprising, the Egyptians made no mistake from day one in their consistent calling for the unconditional resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. The goal was both precise and persistent.

In Tiananmen Square, the slogans of Chinese students in 1989 were limited to milder and more vague moral demands, such as “anti-corruption.” Nobody dared to utter the blasphemy of “down with Deng Xiaoping,” although he was rumored to have an emergency airplane ready for an exit. The Chinese simply think that the emperor is a good guy, but has merely made some “mistakes.” When three protestors from Hunan threw eggs at the portrait of Chairman Mao, they were treated as criminals, seized by students and handed over to the public security bureau officers immediately. The three got long prison sentences of up to 18 years thanks to the vigilance of the students-cum-Red-Guards. With an “uprising” of this kind, Beijing had little to worry about.

The Egyptians were willing to pay a price for their change—a few dozen protesters died in violent scuffles with President Mubarak’s police. The Chinese are obsessed with the “principle” of Gandhi-style non-violence, while forgetting they are no Indians and their rival is not as benevolently vegetarian as the British. Were there any informers infiltrated into the gatherings at Tahrir Square? Perhaps, but at that moment the Egyptians would never allow Mubarak’s regime to employ a divide-and-rule tactic. They united and took part passionately in the uprising rather than stepping aside and waiting to lay their bet on the winner’s side.

In the jungle called China, there is simply a greater variety of political animals. For example, a species of flunkies and eunuchs are ready and willing to help consolidate the power of a master who’s being challenged by offering to turn informers or propagandists for the regime. If an uprising succeeds, flunkies and eunuchs tend to keep their jobs because the winner turns into a new emperor very soon, and will need the same service. It sounds a bit like the role of civil servants in normal countries like Britain, the US and Japan, but it’s not quite the same. The Chinese equivalent is a more psychologically sophisticated, but vicious one.

And finally, do the Chinese really want freedom that much or are they fearful of being free, as the Frankfurt-born psychologist Enrich Fromm once famously put it? True, an authoritarian structure removes choices and freedom, but for an unimaginative and mentally lazy people, it also removes anxiety. The Chinese love to conform to group norms without bothering to understand what those norms mean—take the recent frenzies for golf or French red wines, for example. Preferring to survive under an emperor is another timeless norm that Western liberals find hard to comprehend. So the Swiss bankers may be busy in the coming weeks freezing and handing over Mubarak’s assets, but some others will remain untouched for a very long time

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