By Fareed Zakaria
This past week, an unusual state of affairs caught my eye. I expect protests in China to be stamped out pretty quickly. Instead, not only did the government recently allow a large group of protesters to run amok, it also apologized and caved in to their demands.
What in the world?
Let's begin in the town of Qidong, about an hour north of Shanghai. Thousands assembled to protest against the construction of an industrial waste pipeline. And then something rarely seen in China took place. Despite the presence of scores of policemen, the protesters went wild. Hundreds entered and took over an entire government building. Computers were smashed. Outside, cars were overturned. At least two police officers were beaten up.
I would have expected Beijing to retaliate with great force. Instead, it caved. The waste disposal project was abandoned. And the state-run People's Daily applauded the decision, writing that “a responsible government should...create an inclusive environment for public opinion."
Here's what's even more surprising: The same thing happened a few weeks earlier.
Tens of thousands of citizens of Shifang in Sichuan Province staged a protest against a smelting plant. It was met with anti-riot police and tear gas. But later, the government relented, doing a u-turn and shutting down the $1.6 billion project.
The two protests, despite being nearly 2,000 miles apart, are actually connected. Residents of Qidong said they were inspired by the news of the successful demonstration in Shifang. But there's another connection.
The protesters in both cities mobilized on Weibo – China's version of Twitter – where as many as 300 million users share news, photos, and discuss politics.
According to the consulting firm McKinsey, China has “by far the world's most active” social media population. Ninety-one percent of its surveyed internet users visited a social media website in the last six months, compared with 70 percent in South Korea, 67 percent in the U.S. and 30 percent in Japan.
The internet, despite Beijing's best efforts at censorship, has empowered and connected China’s people in a way that couldn’t’ have been envisioned even a few years ago.
So, are the events of Qidong and Shifang part of a larger trend? Will it spread?
For now, it seems not. From years of watching China, one thing is apparent. Beijing picks its battles – if people complain about pollution or the environment, it increasingly has begun to make some concessions. But protests over economic policy produce less change. And demands for political liberalization are met with a very different kind of response.
Also, many of these decisions are actually taking place at the local and provincial levels, where governors have significant powers and independence. So sometimes these provinces will tolerate demonstrations as a pressure valve to let off steam. In other cases, most cases, they crack down.
The key is whether protests in one place build momentum to a regional or national level – and that's what Beijing works hard to prevent.
But about 4 in 10 Chinese now have access to the internet.
As China advances, that ratio will grow and grow. In the past, Beijing could contain the flow of information from one part of the country to another. But that might prove increasingly difficult as the Chinese people get more and more connected. The internet will not make China free – that will take actual Chinese reformers and revolutionaries and organized movements – but technology does in some ways help the cause of individual liberty here.