I am intrigued by China – and have blogged about it many times. So I was excited to read an article by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times on a topic that has crossed my mind. How is the Arab Spring going to impact the world’s largest non democracy?
Now I am not a China-hater, far from it. There are many things we can learn from them. But my biggest bone of contention lies in the basic right of freedom. As a teenager I came of age politically with the anti-Apartheid movement and the campaign to free Jews from the Soviet Union.
With this in mind, I do wonder whether China, a country with extensive Internet resources can remain unaffected by the Arab Spring. Mr. Friedman warns that China cannot ignore the lessons of what factors serve as incubators to 21st Century revolutions or how these rebellions are being played out.
“Let’s start with the new. Sometime around the year 2000, the world achieved a very high level of connectivity, virtually flattening the global economic playing field. This web of connectivity was built on the diffusion of personal computers, fiber-optic cable, the Internet and Web servers. What this platform did was to make Boston and Beijing or Detroit and Damascus next-door neighbors. It brought some two billion people into a global conversation.”
The rise of smarter cellphones, wireless bandwidth and social networks has brought a further two billion people into the conversation and these populations are often living in remote areas.
All this means is that the days when traditional forms of mass communication such as state-run TV and radio could ensure the people hear only the official party lines are over. “The Syrians can’t shut off their cellphone networks now any more than they can shut off their electricity grids.”
Mr. Friedman illustrates this by pointing out that although Syria has banned all foreign TV networks, you only need go to YouTube and search for “Dara’a” in order to see clear up-to-the minute video of the Syrian regime’s crackdown. These videos are all filmed using cellphones or flip-cams by Syrian protesters who upload them to YouTube.
Mr. Friedman’s second lesson from the Arab Spring is “a manifestation of “Carlson’s Law,” posited by Curtis Carlson, the C.E.O. of SRI International, in Silicon Valley, which states that: “In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.” As a result, says Carlson, the sweet spot for innovation today is “moving down,” closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate.
The regime of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was just too dumb and slow to manage the unrest. The Tahrir revolutionaries were smart but chaotic, and without leadership. Therefore, the role of leaders today — of companies and countries — is to inspire, empower, enable and then edit and meld all that innovation coming from the bottom up. But that requires more freedom for the bottom.”
While reading this, I began to get frustrated that Mr. Friedman was focusing too much on technology which essentially is a means rather than an end. But he then moves on to quote the Russian historian Leon Aron who drew comparisons between the Arab uprisings and the democratic revolution in Russia twenty years ago. “They were both not so much about freedom or food as about “dignity.” They each grew out of a deep desire by people to run their own lives and to be treated as “citizens” — with both obligations and rights that the state cannot just give and take by whim.”
Aron added that “The spark that lights the fuse is always the quest for dignity. Today’s technology just makes the fire much more difficult to put out.”
In fact the slogan of the Tunisian uprising was “Dignity before bread.”
China has one of the fastest growing economies and a standard of living that is probably greatly appreciated by Chinese citizens. But there is more to life than just economic factors. If a Chinese Spring is to be avoided, the first step forward is to acknowledge that maybe the Chinese people crave the values that have seen an amazing chain of events in the Arab world.
The first mistake would be to think that you can prevent them from hearing what is happening globally. The days when the Great Wall of China was its first line of defense does not have a place in the 21st Century. Not that it always takes technology…
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).