How would China's government have responded to an Anna Hazare type challenge? To answer that question, one needs to assess the phenomenon and mechanism of the Hazare-led protests this past week. In some respects, these are more important than the immediate issue of a strong ombudsman law or Lok Pal Bill.
When Hazare and a small group of supporters went on fast at New Delhi's Jantar Mantar grounds, the symbolism was just too tempting: a frail, diminutive man taking on the might of the state; a government riddled with financial scandals; a ruling party with a succession of incompetent, 'I don't give a toss' spokespersons.
Television channels took the story to living rooms across the country. Public impatience, growing with every swindle in the past few months, reached boiling point. Soon enough, Hazare was a folk hero. He found backing from movie stars and business leaders alike, and from tens of thousands of ordinary middle class people. There were copycat demonstrations in city after city.
Finally, for all its bravado and sarcasm, the Manmohan Singh administration had to surrender. A committee comprising cabinet ministers as well as Hazare and his close associates was announced to draft a new Lok Pal Bill. There was no violence, no shooting, no mounted police. In the end, the government succumbed to public pressure and a media onslaught simply because it was too embarrassed and too terrified.
To be fair, the situation wouldn't have evolved — or devolved — thus in too many countries. In that sense, this episode has been a welcome reminder of how democracy does work in India, but that's another platitude, for another day.
To go back to the original question, imagine a scene where a protestor sits down for a hunger strike at Tiananmen Square, in the centre of the Chinese capital. How would the authorities in Beijing respond? This query is not just a theoretical indulgence and the conjuring of an abstraction. It takes place at a time when, to quote an American diplomat, China's government is engaged "in the most oppressive crackdown on domestic dissent in a decade".
There are two reasons for this crackdown; one is internal and the other external. Let us study them independently.
Internal dissent in China can be divided into broadly two categories: ethnic dissent and economic dissent. The first is easy enough to identify: the struggle by Uighurs in Xinjiang and Tibetans in Tibet and Tibetan-dominant enclaves in other provinces to liberate themselves from what they regard Han annexation. Occasionally, such struggle turns bloody (particularly in Xinjiang, where sections of Uighurs have joined forces with Al Qaeda). For the most part, the world sees it as a human rights issue; China, however, calls it "splittism".
The second stream is of more recent origin. China's economic success is born of a peculiar model that throws resources — land, water, minerals, energy — into industrial facilities and triggers impressive but unreal productivity figures. Costs of manufactured products are kept low — and the price of exports is kept competitive — because, essentially, the inputs are subsidised. If, for instance, businessmen in China had to pay market prices for land to build their factories or water for their cooling plants, their robust economic model would weaken substantially.
This model is economically, socially and ecologically unsustainable. In recent years, the Chinese government has spoken of green development. It has taken some steps against corruption as well. A few weeks ago, the railway minister was sacked and charged with sweetheart deals. China has announced ambitious high-speed (Bullet Train) railway links between its major cities. This is a major infrastructure initiative. Apparently, the former railway minister was using this project to fatten himself.
More important, Beijing has grudgingly created an opening for the marketisation of some mineral resources, but not of all factors of production. In the hinterland, peasants are still being deprived of their land and water resources without adequate compensation.
Since many of the export-oriented businesses and manufacturing facilities set up in China have substantial equity holdings by middle-level, provincial and city party bosses — this is part of the Communist Party of China's (CPC's) elaborate control and stabilisation strategy — the peasant who loses out has an immediate target of hate. This is the corrupt local party leader, or perhaps his sons and nephews, who grow rich and become the CPC's very own crony capitalists.
The result of this is growing agitation and localised protests. Indeed, matters have come to such a pass that data on incidence of unrest is not even published anymore in China. "I imagine things are really out of control," a China watcher said at a conference in New Delhi a few months ago.
Chinese protestors have used technology and social media innovatively. In 2009, Beijing banned YouTube, the video-sharing website. One reason was that peasants and common people who were being removed from their land, and whose property was being expropriated to set up some industrial facility or business complex, were taking videos of the expropriation as it happened. From mobile phone cameras, these images soon made it to YouTube and went viral.
Rather than curb unfair expropriation, Beijing took the easier option: it blocked YouTube.
There is a fear here that borders on paranoia. It is not new. As far back as 2004, when the BJP-led alliance was voted out of office in New Delhi and the Congress and its partners came to power, the CPC and the Chinese authorities set up a panel of inquiry. Taken in by the incorrect argument that the BJP's defeat was caused by a rural revolt against urban-centric economic growth, the panel sought to study the verdict in India and learn lessons for China.
More recently, the so-called "Jasmine Revolution" in the Middle East has shaken the CPC leadership. There are constant apprehensions of crowds gathering in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. This has led to large-scale preventive detentions and, in February, the arrest of an individual caught holding a single jasmine flower in a shopping district in Beijing.
"The number one fear," says a foreign official who travelled to Beijing recently, "is of a contagion effect in Asia, and of civil society uprisings in China and North Korea.". The Chinese see North Korea, a client state run by a megalomaniacal dynasty, as particularly vulnerable.
Given this backdrop, the Anna Hazare theatre in the heart of New Delhi must have had Beijing getting nightmares. Not a state system that easily understands the concept of civil society, the CPC establishment now has another problem to chew on.
Ashok Malik is a journalist writing on, primarily, Indian politics and foreign policy, and inflicting his opinion on readers of several newspapers for close to 20 years. He lives in Delhi, is always game for an Americano and can be contacted at email@example.com.