Glass bottles arced through the smoke-filled sky, followed by sticks, shoes and blocks of pavement torn up from the streets. Riot police pushed back with water canons and rubber bullets, adding to the growing pandemonium. A few blocks away, an old woman in a burqa posed for a television camera, holding the national flag in one hand and in the other a cardboard sign written in Arabic and English: “Enough is Enough.” These were not religious fundamentalists protesting against America or Israel. These were regular citizens, men and women of all ages, standing up to their own government and all the ills of society it represented: corruption, unemployment, rising food prices and the enormous gaps between rich and poor. Enough was enough.
Hosni Mubarak’s reign over Egypt might have lasted 30 years, but it only took 18 days for the people in Cairo to topple it. What happened on Tahrir Square these past weeks was the stuff we read about in history textbooks, like the Boston Tea Party or the storming of the Bastilles. Not since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 had the world witnessed a celebration of the people’s power on such a grand scale. In his remarks on Mubarak’s resignation, Barack Obama borrowed from his favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quote and declared that “the moral force of nonviolence [has] bent the arc of history toward justice once more.” Indeed, with both justice and history on their side, the Egyptian people finally took ownership of their country and put an end to a regime decidedly out of touch with its young, educated population. In the end, slogans and banners, cell phones and laptops prevailed. Bullets and tanks never looked so powerless.
The concept of an Internet-organized revolution, so-called Revolution 2.0, can be traced back to Iran’s Presidential Election in 2009, when tens of thousands of Tehranians took to the streets accusing their supreme leader of rigging the election. The subsequent military crackdown sent an age-old television warning to anti-government protestors in the region: do not try this at home. Those who defied the force of nature would end up like 27-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan who suffered what was dubbed the “most witnessed death in human history.” But a year and a half later, things turned out very differently in Tunisia, where angry demonstrators succeeded in forcing President Ben Ali out of power and out of the country. The Tunisian Revolution started a prairie fire that quickly spread to neighboring Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt, the largest Arab nation in the world. Autocrats and dictators who used to hunker down to stay off the international radar screen were suddenly exposed, caught off-guard by an emboldened population that no longer took “no” for an answer. In a matter of weeks, Tahrir Square rewrote the laws of domestic politics in the Middle East.
Here in Hong Kong, we followed the events in faraway Cairo with momentary interest. The usual footage of angry mobs clashing with riot police – tear gas, Molotov cocktails and buildings on fire – flickered on our television screens. But what began as just another episode in the never-ending drama of Middle Eastern instability ended with something deeply emotional for our city. Our hearts sank when we saw those familiar images of crowds surrounding the tanks, cheering with the soldiers and calling on them to join the people’s movement; images that united us in a single thought: this is the Tiananmen Square that never was. Back in the summer of 1989, the same kind of optimism and euphoria swept across China and Hong Kong, just as it did in Egypt these past weeks. Student leaders Wang Dan (王丹) and Wu’er Kaixi (吾爾開希) galvanized the crowds demanding freedom and political reform in much the same way Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google executive, demanded an end to government abuse and corruption. Like the Cairo demonstrators, citizens of Beijing took a leap of faith with the military, believing that they too wanted a better China and that even the coldest of soldiers wouldn’t open fire on defenseless students. But that’s where the stories of two ancient civilizations diverged. To the thousands who perished on Tiananmen Square that June morning, the arc of history was too long. They never got to see it bend.
22 years later, the Chinese government is much more prepared for organized protests. Years of practice from suppressing Tibetan separatists and falun gong have made the Politburo rather good at snuffing out organized protests before they begin. With state-controlled ISPs and the “Great Firewall” erected as part of a broader information censoring system called the Golden Shield Project (金盾工程), the government blocks website content and intercepts search engines on a daily basis. Then there is the army of Internet police who work around the clock to monitor chat rooms, blogs and instant messaging sites. Cyber-activists like Michael Anti (趙靜), Ai Weiwei (艾未未) and Wang Xiaoning (王小寧) are harassed, jailed and made an example of. In 2008, the government introduced Green Dam (綠壩), a content control software to be pre-installed on every computer sold in the country, presumably to protect children from inappropriate content. International and domestic condemnation of this brazen form of privacy invasion finally forced the government to abort the project.
But censorship is a dangerous game. It is also as futile as wrapping fire with paper – so goes the Chinese saying, for the spread of information will always outpace any government attempt to restrict it. Where China lacks in freedom of expression, however, it makes up for with houses, cars and other middle class must-haves. Replicating Singapore’s model of a freedomless economic city-state, the politburo keeps the economy growing at above 8% year after year, as a psychological morphine drip to numb opposition and silence dissent. Surely if Mubarak had bothered to do the same, he might have been able to hang around for another few years before handing the throne to his son. Instead, 40% of the Egyptian population lives on less than US$2 a day and young people between the ages of 15 and 25 account for 80% of the country’s unemployed. When it comes to running a one-party autocracy, Mubarak had much to learn from the Chinese.
The Revolution in Egypt was a genuine popular uprising. With no leader to be arrested and no organization to be crushed, the movement blindsided Mubarak’s government and sent chills down the spines of every autocrat in the world. From the Jordanian king and the Burmese president to Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, Lee Hsien Loong and our very own Hu Jintao, leaders of authoritarian regimes are losing sleep, tossing and turning in bed wondering when the next Facebook or Twitter time bomb would go off. They are members of the Insomniacs’ Club that operates a franchise of ageing dystopias around the world. Until they unclench their fists and let off some of the steam, we can bet on more Tahrir Squares to come in the months and years ahead. T’is not the season to be a dictator.