From PRI's The World. 15 February, 2011
The protests in Egypt made big headlines around the world. But not in China, where censors didn't want news of the revolution on state TV.
Egypt's military on Monday called for an end to strikes and protests following the departure Friday of President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt's 18-days of protests made headlines around the world, though not so much in China. Censors there kept official news coverage to a minimum during the protests.
If you wanted to hear about Mubarak's resignation on China's top state-run channel, you had to wait until Saturday evening and then, 29 minutes into a 30 minutes newscast, when it aired a 30 second item about the change in government.
It is not surprising, then, that some people on the streets of Beijing had mixed reactions to Egypt's successful protests. On Monday, 18-year-old named Chang Xiang said, "I didn't know anything was happening in Egypt. I don't watch the news. As a student, my duty is to study."
Understanding the protests
Another woman, a middle-aged professional, said, "I heard something about it, but I don't really understand it. I also asked an older person. "I'm so busy, that I don't have time to watch the news when I get home."
One man, a 30-something information technology professional named Ma Yan, said that he was up to speed on how Egyptian protestors brought down Mubarak, and he applauded it. "I think it's good, because it's a reflection of people's idea, and it means the country is open-minded. Not many countries can do what Egypt did."
When asked how open-minded the Chinese government is, Ma said he thought it is very open minded. "I really like our government. Without it, China wouldn't be doing so well."
But there also wouldn't be heavy censorship or people imprisoned for what they say online or in the media. Just last week, a blind human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, and his wife, were badly beaten at the behest of local officials, for sending out a video showing they were being confined illegally at home.
Then again, the Internet and social media have opened new spaces in China. Many Chinese have been using them since Friday to cheer the Egyptian protesters' success.
On the Chinese version of Twitter, one person said: "I'm so jealous of the Egyptian people. Why is it that their military doesn't open fire on their people?" -- like the People's Liberation Army did around Tiananmen Square in 1989, killing hundreds.
One of the demonstrators who joined those protests was a railway worker named Han Dongfang. He spent four years in prison, before being exiled to Hong Kong.
"I'm very happy for the Egyptians," Han said. "They finally get what they want. Regarding China, I certainly don't wish the same thing to happen as it did 21 years ago."
By that, Han said, he meant gradual evolution toward democracy is better for China now -- not disruptive protests and he said that he thinks the change has already started.
Han, who founded the labor rights group China Labour Bulletin 17 years ago, said that workers now have the space to strike for their rights in a way they never could before. He added that civil society is strengthening in other ways, too.
"My impression is there are two different extremes happening in China," Han said. "One is that corruption is worse than ever in our history. At the same time, the Internet is able to uncover a lot more of these dirty things... even compared to two years ago.
The government on every level is under huge pressure, and that pressure is becoming bigger and bigger. So the government has to take some action to respond."
Of course, Han said, real democracy is more than that, and he thinks it will come, eventually. For now, he said, activists like him are engaged in a tough fight, nudging a stubborn system to be more open and more responsive.
As more people do the nudging, Han said, a bigger change will come. It won't come in 18 days, as it did in Egypt, but if it's real, and if it lasts, it'll be worth the wait.
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.