Page 1 of 2 Smelling salts for China's Jasmine dream
By Peter Lee
China's "Jasmine incident" suggests new paradigms in the game of cat-and-mouse between China's security organs and dissidents.
The government's anxiety over events in the Arab world and NorthAfrica was on full display on February 20 as hundreds of police were dispatched to Beijing's Wangfujing central shopping street and other sites around China to counter a "Jasmine" demonstration promoted by the overseas Chinese dissident website boxun.com.
Known dissidents were reportedly detained and, in some cases, brutalized. Boxun was subjected to a distributed denial of service
(DDoS) attack and the security services anxiously blocked keywords related to "Jasmine".
The event itself was a bizarre one-off that many dissidents chose not to attend, and yielded more onlookers and journalists than demonstrators.
In an interesting way, the Chinese government's overreaction - rather than the actions of the demonstrators - turns out to be the story.
China Digital Times posted the account of one blogger in Beijing, Jason Ng:
I was shocked by how influential the event was; I was pleased to see the Chinese authorities become the proverbial ants in the hot wok.
To be honest, when Shudong posted the call to protest, I felt absolutely certain that it was a joke. Even now I still feel like it was a joke. Not only do I feel this way, but a lot of people also feel this way.
If the government hadn't had such a big reaction, I believe that not so many people would have participated in the Jasmine revolution.
Unfortunately, for those who have guilty consciences, at a certain point, demons can be heard in the sound of the midnight wind. 
With its ceaseless calls for "stability", China's government has backed itself into a Confucian corner.
"Instability" - a multipolar society fueled by access to the Internet - is becoming a fact of life, the new default setting. The intrusiveness of the "Great Firewall" and the security apparatus attempting to impose stability are threatening to become more prominent irritants than the dissent they are meant to stifle.
Unless the Chinese government has enough resources to send police to every street corner, a goon to every dissident's household, and a fifty-center to every online forum whenever an impish website announces a demonstration, it is going to have to develop new tools to manage China's political life.
The most relevant lesson for China from the people's revolts in the Arab world is that single-party authoritarianism is increasingly vulnerable. When only state tools (police, security forces and the army) and the occasional club-wielding thugs are available to counter widespread political dissent, the government quickly finds itself on the wrong side of the public-relations equation.
China's future may look more like Russia and Iran's: messy and multi-party.
Both Russia and Iran have chosen to reconcile themselves to multi-party politics, if not democracy. To protect the ruling groups, they have created, financed and preferentially promoted through pro-state media and various murky machinations nationalist political parties that serve as another weapon against democratic dissent.
Certainly, Iran sent as chilling but more effective message for pro-government parties in the call of the Majlis (parliament) for the death penalty for key opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, than it was for Chinese policemen to put a rice bag over the head of a dissident, Liu Shihui, punch him and break his leg. 
The calculation that people will embrace Confucian authoritarianism looks more and more risky as domestic and international forces impinge on China, much as they did the at the first modern collapse of Confucianism at the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may find it necessary to become more Taoist - to react to events rather than pretend to control them all - and think about replacing its overseas Confucius Institutes with Laozi academies.
The question, however, is whether the CCP dares surrender some of the perquisites and power that go with being the "father and mother of the people".
There are indications that the Chinese government is going to, if anything, double down on "stability" by perpetuating single-party rule through the second-generation of princelings.
If the Chinese leadership does not draw useful and important lessons from the total princeling failure in Libya, coming on the heels of the massive public repudiation of Hosni Mubarak's son and rumored heir-apparent, Gamal, then its situation is potentially dire.
Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif, had staked out political space for himself as the sane one in the family: the suit-wearing, London School of Economics-educated technocrat who would manage the family business (which his father had put on a sound geopolitical footing by engineering an unlikely - and expensive - post-terrorism, post-weapons of mass destruction, post-Lockerbie rapprochement with the West) on neo-authoritarian terms.
But he instantaneously bankrupted his political capital in a finger-wagging TV address in support of the crackdown. Steve Clemons wrote:
What is interesting is that Saif Gaddafi is no idiot. He has seen for some time that his father's government was brittle and fragile - and that a spark could come along and unleash internal rage against those holding incumbent power.
Much to the distress and private anger of Libyan leader Moammer Gaddafi's chief internal security and military czars, Saif Gaddafi has led a domestic campaign of reconciliation and bridge-building with the Muslim Brotherhood, considered at that time to be the regime's chief political opponent. At Saif's urging and with grudging support from his father, various former leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had been appointed to various key government and semi-government positions of responsibility.
When I was in Libya, three of the LIFG's top tier - the Emir of the group as well as the head of planning, and of armaments - were taken off of death row and released. I was there and met them and watched the discomfort of the chief of internal security as this was happening. Saif was trying to make the police state his father had built relax its grip and to reconcile with many of those it feared.
Thus, while I am no fan of Gaddafi, the full story of the revolution inside Libya can't be told without understanding that Saif Gaddafi, a likely successor to his father, believed in certain kinds of reforms and inclusion early - but given the tenor, the arrogance, and distance from reality he exhibited in his televised comments, he showed that he doesn't understand the public grievances driving this revolution.
There is little hope that any of these regimes in theMiddle East really understand what an inclusive, non-totalitarian regime would really look like. 
The princeling problem is not a matter of mere academic interest to China.
The man widely expected to lead China after Hu Jintao retires as president, Xi Jinping, is himself a princeling, the son of Xi Zhongxun, who implemented the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) reform.
Reuters was granted its own exclusive trove of 1,000 WikiLeaks cables. Paul Eckert's February 17 review of the cables concentrated on the outsized role of princelings in the CCP elite - and in Xi's mindset.
Relations at the party's top echelon are "akin to those in the executive suite of a large corporation, as determined by the interplay of powerful interests, or as shaped by competition between princelings with family ties to party elders and 'shopkeepers' who have risen through the ranks of the Party," said a cable from July 2009, citing conversations with a source with family connections to senior leaders.
Shopkeepers is a derogatory term the offspring of revolutionary leaders use to describe those without elite party family backgrounds, a fellow princeling who befriended Xi as a teenager told diplomats.
"While my father was bleeding and dying for China, your father was selling shoelaces," the friend, who now lives outside China, quoted one of his peers as saying.
Retired, and in some cases active, leaders and their families had taken firm control of sectors such as electric power, oil, banking, real estate and precious gems and they opposed media openness, fearing the scrutiny this might bring to their activities, it said.
"The central feature of leadership politics was the need to protect oneself and one's family from attack after leaving office," said the cable.
"Ever since the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of party elders have been pushing to place their progeny atop the party, believing that only their own offspring can be trusted to run the party," a diplomat wrote in a cable after conversations with a party think tank scholar.
Other informants also insist that Xi's upbringing among the ruling elite is the best indicator of his attitudes. "Party elders were primarily concerned with having someone 'conservative' like Xi in place who will not threaten their 'vested interests,'" said the journalist with family ties to the leadership.
"Our contact is convinced that Xi has a genuine sense of 'entitlement,' believing that members of his generation are the 'legitimate heirs' to the evolutionary achievements of their parents and therefore 'deserve to rule China'," said a long November 2009 cable summarizing two years of conversations with the friend who was close to Xi during their youth.
If the WikiLeaks cables are correct - and there is no guarantee they are; diplomats are not immune to alarmism, wishful thinking, the attractions of delivering opinions their superiors want to hear, and plain, simple error - the CCP is risking self-immolation by placing at the apex of power a mediocre princeling who instinctively understands the elite's obsession with profit, power, and protection but little else.
Inevitably, princelings will serve as the focus of popular resentment in any Chinese political crisis. People may be willing to sacrifice individual rights for national development, but not to perpetuate personal privilege into the second or third generation. In such circumstances, Xi Jinping may be more liability than asset as the face of the party.
What may save Xi Jinping is an assist from China's dissidents, whose perceptions of people power and events in the Middle East seem as mired in nostalgia for 1989 and recollections of Tiananmen as the leadership is obsessed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Many Chinese dissidents are understandably infatuated with the spectacle of large crowds in large squares.
There is also appears to be an understandable but somewhat more dubious assumption that the magic process of democracy will adequately resolve the deeply rooted problems created or papered-over by decades of authoritarian rule.
Unfortunately, revolution in China will probably look very little like the Velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia - which inspired the optimistic liberal democratic aspirations of China's dissident Charter 08 - or even the Egyptian revolution. It may very well look a lot like the Soviet collapse of 1991: the near instantaneous liquidation of the massive territories and state assets of a multi-national empire.