Technology Transforms China

The last publicly known and acknowledged national discord in China was the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Falun gong has been able to raise dissent but the impact has not been as pervasive as Tiananmen. With Beijing gearing up for Olympics in 2008, there is no reason to believe that we would see any more protests coming up in China over the next one-year or so, the recent rally on 5 June not with standing. The efficiency of the Chinese state system will ensure that the best foot is put forward to greet the hordes of sportsmen, celebrities and sports enthusiasts who will visit China in 2008. Any thing even remotely resembling a quirk in the system is thus not likely to be visible to the Olympic visitors.

But the same cannot be said of the many frictions and undercurrents of protest, which are evident in the hinterland. Some of these are being driven by technology others by interaction of the Chinese with the outside World. The ubiquity of the SMS will probably drive the Chinese towards liberation in the years to come. The SMS unlike the internet does not need chat rooms for interaction with the like minded. Chat rooms can be controlled to an extent but not so much the SMS. Therefore, it can surely form a means of a quiet transformation. With 400 million users and one in every three Chinese possessing a mobile phone, the potential of this medium as an agent of social change is enormous.

As a recent report in the Economist confirmed that, information technology is becoming a driver for change inside Chinese society. An anonymous text message on mobile phones in the Chinese port city of Xiamen has led the government to sit up and take notice. The message succeeded in rallying thousands of protestors to the city centre against plans to build a chemical plant manufacturing paraxylene used in polyester. The communication was emotional as there was an allusion to pollution being equivalent to dropping an atomic bomb. A deluge of humanity swept the city square against the government. This was not an issue of corruption, poor civic services or lack of amenities; it was portrayed as a survival issue. Similar protests over slave labor in the provinces working in brick kilns were reported. While the authorities have been quick to react and redress some of the grievances, the culture of remonstration is slowly growing and technology is providing it a critical mass.

Chinese authorities have a way of controlling dissent. They have generally demonstrated a two-pronged approach. Quickly accept some of the demands of the protestors identify the leaders and then placate or hound them. Here again technology may make it difficult to identify who the actual clique leading the protests is.

The flames of balk fanned by local issues and leaders are likely to be catalyzed by the most unusual of all sources, American trade union bosses. The visit of Teamster President James P. Hoffa in June was followed by a delegation from Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. While these influential union bodies of America could not break bread with the state controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, at least Hoffa and his labor mates were sufficiently enthused to progress the dialogue. A Union of over 170 million is a powerful magnet to those who are intent on globalizing the last, ‘commodity’ human labor. So Chinese bosses beware.

Another critical issue in China could be religion. Here again the entry of the Pope Benedict XVI and the Dalai Lama could herald a change. This may not manifest in street side protests but a quiet transformation in Chinese society giving courage to the individual in groupings other than the power of the Party.

Environment, labor and religion are thus the key issues. While the latter two could be well under control of the Chinese state authority, the environment can script its own story. We are possibly beginning to see dissent in China, which could lead to transformation of not just Chinese society, but also perhaps the Communist Party, for the leadership has always been nimble footed to accept change, witness Hong Kong, which just celebrated a decade of one country, two systems. In addition, technology will be the driver.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.