Kerry Brown: Arab unrest has reminded Beijing of need for vigilance

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In the past two years, China has escalated its campaign against dissidents, rights lawyers and activists in specific civil society areas. The atmosphere for these groups started to deteriorate in the summer of 2009. Since January this year, and the so-called Jasmine revolutions in North Africa, it has intensified. Now, almost all of China's most prominent critics of the Communist Party have disappeared, been put under house arrest or been charged. Those with long experience cannot remember a more repressive period.

On the surface, this is all the more perplexing when China's economy is so strong, and it seems to have every reason to be confident and secure. It has emerged from the global economic crisis that began in 2007 with its authority enhanced, and its position after the US as the world's dominant force seemingly confirmed. And yet, the government and its security forces think it worthwhile to harass, detain and intimidate bloggers and activists who are barely household names even in their own small communities. This onslaught seems disproportionate, and counter-productive.

What it is tied up with, however, is that China's leaders know the country has reached a tricky transition, one which contains all sorts of threats. The economy might be booming, but so is inequality. Underneath the rhetoric of harmony the government produces, Chinese society is afflicted by profound fault lines, with contention between the winners and losers of the reform process, newly emerging social groups, and all sorts of other voices fighting for influence and space. To the Communist elite, the party and the party alone supplies unity and stability in a society where division, famine and internal and external war have all occurred within living memory. This leadership does not want even the slightest risk of letting all the achievements of the past three decades evaporate because of a wave of escalating protests.

The unrest in North Africa and the Middle East offers the deeply unwelcome reminder that threats can come from a clear blue sky, and that eternal vigilance is the only option as China enters an era of deep social and political transition. If it makes it through the next decade, unified and stable, China will be on track to be the dominant force of the 21st century. If it allows any potential threats to grow, there is the real potential of massive internal division and conflict. To the Communist elite, clampdowns and repression of forces that offer any potential to challenge its legitimacy are a price worth paying.

This is not China's Jasmine Revolution – but the party must be aware that in the next decade, the likelihood of that moment coming grows stronger – and its elite needs smarter answers than the all-out assault it is engaged in at the moment.

Kerry Brown is head of the AsiaProgramme at Chatham House, and author of 'Ballot Box China' (Zed Books)