Last year Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for advoca ting political reform in China and going to prison for political activism. He is a courageous and committed person who publishes articles in Chinese that call for the creation of political parties that could compete with and replace the Communist Party in the governance of China. By doing so he breaks the laws of his country. We may disagree with those laws but in that context he has broken them. Liu does not have a strong following. There is no social movement behind him. Neither his own protest nor foreign support and publicity have produced any effective change. He fits a romantic Western profile of the lone individual who challenges the oppressive weight of the system and is persecuted for doing so but that profile is not adequate for the circumstances of China.
Ai Weiwei is an internationally recognised artist who does not call for the overthrow of the Party-State. He is the son of a hero of the revolution and has probably benefited from that status during most of his life. The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan collapsed many poorly-constructed school buildings and killed or hurt many children. Ai criticised the Chinese government for not having guaranteed that the schools fulfilled the building codes. His criticism reflected the anger of the thousands of families who were affected by the tragedy. Ai did not break any law but his criticism struck a chord with the indignation of many people. In doing so he was in tune with a social movement, and this makes him a more politically threatening critic of the system. He is under arrest but there are still no clear charges against him.
The social movements that appeared in China in the Spring of 1989 that revealed social discontent were interpreted by the Party-State as a prelude to social unrest and they were suppressed and criminalised. The international communications media informed about these cases, but there are many more cases that the media do not cover. There were perhaps 100.000 protests in China last year. Some are due to delayed payments to farmers, others to unemployment created by the privatisation and liberalisation, and many are a result of environmental degradation. These protests correspond to social movements, not to political parties or charismatic leaders. Their most successful tool is the SMS message because there is still no technology available to control SMS. They also use blog sites and social networks, although these are more vulnerable to control. Protest that depends upon individual leaders can be suppressed easily, as in the case of Liu Xiaobo. Protest that grows out of anonymous movements is much more difficult to suppress. For this reason, when we look for dissidence in China, we should look for it in the contexts where it is possible, and where it can be effective. Such dissidence does exist in China and it has had its successes. Much of it takes place within the Party itself. But this kind of dissidence is neither resistance nor revolution.
The Spring of 2011 has seen a series of social movements erupt across North Africa and into the Middle East. Some of them have evolved from dissidence to resistance or revolution. The contexts are different in each case. SMS messages and social networks have been used effectively in these cases as well, but the final outcome has not been the same. The image of thousands of people peacefully occupying the major squares of important cities in Tunisia and Egypt has inspired movements here as well, as demonstrated by the “ Indignados”, who are also demanding “Democracia Real Ya”, and who are also a movement without individual leaders. But we must monitor the results of the movements in Egypt and Tunisia. They brought down dictatorial leaders but what has happened since then has not corresponded to the consolidation of open and democratic societies –not yet at least. The social movements were non-violent but their repression included murder and rape. The cases of Libya, the Yemen and Syria are very different. Here demonstrations have given way to resistance, and resistance is leading to civil war or revolution. It is hard to discern any clear leadership in these revolts, and this reveals one of the weak points of social movements and dissidence, and even of revolution: how and by whom will the results be administered? Changes of regimen still require functioning governmental structures and a stable civil service, as all revolutionaries have had to discover once the revolution was “won”. The immediate and total dismantling of the structures of the Ba’ath state after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 had disastrous consequences. There are no simple solutions to complicated problems.
During the period of decolonisation the words “revolution” and “revolutionary” were frequently used in the communications media in a positive sense that justified the actions of the revolutionaries. During the postcolonial period that followed, for the last 30 years or more, these words no longer appear, nor are they given positive connotations, at least when we talk about politics. Political violence became “terrorism” or “terrorist”, in the best of cases “resistance” (when directed against our “enemies”, not our “friends”), and “dissidence” when harmless to the system.