Lionel Mok is a Hong Kong resident whose work frequently takes him into China. He has a strong interest in Chinese affairs, current, historical and cultural. Pressenza asked Lionel about social media in China and its affect on change, especially looking at it’s effects in the Arab world and other tightly structured and governed regions.

Lionel Mok: “Well, first of all, there’s lots of social media in China – QQ, Wechat etc. The number of users relative to the size of the population is not any lower than in the West. What happens is that social media is not allowed to be used as a rallying instrument for mass movements. And, we all know a lot of these movements around the world are CIA [or its equivalent] sponsored. Just look at Ukraine and how so-called democratic movements can turn into major catastrophes.

“In China YouTube was once permitted but after a while it was used to instigate and organise riots like happened with Tibet so it was banned.

“China is monitoring the media just as the USA government does, but there the comparison ends.

“China does it with the aim of stopping seditious ideas from germinating. It does not want people to get those ideas at all. The monitoring techniques are quite primitive, with websites totally banned when certain words pop up there, and everything that has got to do with politics is banned.

“Whereas the USA does not mind people getting those ideas – they just want to keep monitoring those disruptive elements in society and to make life unpleasant for them by maligning them and terrorising them with trumped up charges. They use technology to encourage dialogue so that they can flush out those disruptive elements in society.

“On the other hand, the Chinese government uses state control to prevent the breeding of disruptive elements.

‘The difference, apart from that of ideology, is of course of resource as well. The US spends billions in surveillance technologies which could give them the edge in many other areas like military technology.

Pressenza: Are you saying social control is justified in China?

“Yes, yes and yes.

“Firstly it is much more threatened by disintegration than the USA or most Western countries.

“Secondly there is the old chestnut that Chinese people are not interested in politics and the government thinks it should be kept that way. Western people find that hard to believe but that’s true. In this age of cynicism towards anything political they may find it easier to comprehend.

“All through history, the common Chinese folk assessed the governments through their ability to maintain stability. Long term stability, the Chinese have observed, always brings about prosperity. It does not matter whether there is always sustained growth. It is enough for them to have a job that pays, even when times sometimes become hard. We as a people understand hard times better – there are times when problems cannot be solved and you simply have to sit it out. Governments are assessed not by results during those times but by their sincerity and efforts made.

“Whereas in the West people need to have higher salaries year on year even if times are hard. And at times things are inevitably hard just as there are years of plenty. And, during those times they want another government and that’s when politicking is done for its own sake and not for the good of the country. This kind of enforced government change is a travesty of democracy. It leads to dishonesty and manipulating of information and also corruption.

“Just to take an example – why should growth takes precedence over unemployment? Why should some people have their salaries increased while other people go without jobs?

“This idea of perpetual growth has never existed in the Chinese mind, and even now only the Westernised urban professionals in China think that way. And, they constitute a tiny minority of the population. In the traditional Chinese mind, which has been shaped by two thousand years of farming, a bad year is not due to a bad government but mostly a bad weather cycle or freak of nature.

“For the rest of the Chinese population their preferences lie elsewhere – just getting a job, getting married, having kids etc., whereas personal fulfillment or advancement is only one of the many elements in the greater scheme of things, more important for some, less for others.

“Therefore it is total bullshit that the legitimacy of the CCP only depends on economic growth. This is Western media at its most absurd. The CCP is never worried about economic growth. It has always shown an ability to grow the economy – even throughout the Cultural Revolution the economy grew at a rate of 4%, and it was mostly the people at the lowest level that benefited during those times.

Therefore, the greatest challenge right now is not the growth rate which is after all only a number. The challenge is the corruption within the party which the CCP is cracking down on with full force. And they do it at the expense of economic growth.

“The second challenge is how to increase the earnings of the lower classes. This is an even greater challenge. And we cannot do it with the likes of Ai Wei Wei – for example – spreading poison in hopes of instituting a bourgeois revolution in order to maximise gains for the already prosperous but ever greedy middle class, which should not exist at all if the CCP went by its original ideology. And, contrary to what the Western people think, the common folk are totally indifferent to the fate of those like Ai Wei Wei, thinking it is only a squabble among the rich and influential.

“That brings us to the last reason why the Chinese gov’t wants to control the media. It is precisely to prevent the middle class as represented by such as Ai Wei Wei, always hungry for more and having no compassion for people less fortunate, from getting even more than what they have now at the expense of the rest of the population. That’s why I respect the Chinese government and despise the bourgeois breakouts portraying themselves as human rights activists.

“ However, can social media effect change in China, I think it is always possible, it is only a question of when, and more importantly where. I believe one must not overstate the role of social media in cases of civil unrest because it is only an instrument not the cause.

“The 1989 student protests were a nationwide movement (the media focused on Beijing but there were protests in all major cities, except Shanghai) without the benefit of the Internet or even mobile phones. It lasted longer than the Jasmine Movements in the Middle East, although the outcome is the exact opposite of what the students expected, and China’s freedom of discussion has taken steps backward ever since, instead of forward like what happened after the movements that preceded Tiananmen. China is less free now than in 1989, but that’s mainly the fault of the West’s misreporting of the event, and the students’ misunderstanding of the West and its reporting. But that’s another discussion so let’s go back to social media.

“We must not forget that with Facebook, Wechat or other online cyber instrument things may happen faster, but do not necessarily last longer, or happen more frequently

“All social movements have their underlying socio-economic underpinnings, an immediate cause that sparks off the events, and an intrinsic momentum which can only carry them to a certain point where either a solution must be found (e.g. Tunisia) or a full blown revolt (Egypt) must ensue.

“The students’ occupation of the Taiwan Legislative Building (actually it had been planned long time ago) happened without warning, but lasted as long as its natural lifespan.

“As far as China is concerned, things have been calm for 25 years. I won’t go into the overall strategy of the government, suffice it to say that China has been veering to the right, and increasingly so since 1989. This is a reaction to the student movements of 1989, which I maintain was a leftist movement, with clamours for fundamental changes in the government, from the election process (equal rights for everybody) to distribution of wealth (according to socialist principles, no corruptions, no favouritism). The participants were all college kids, mostly from very modest rural or urban workers families. It was wrong to represent the movement as one staged by the emerging urban middle class, which was so small at the time you could hardly call it a class. Quite the opposite. It was a movement that reflected the proletarians’s disgust of the emerging bourgeoisie and its monopoly of the wealth creation process.

“So we know the government put down the rebellion, went on to develop its economy and enlarged the middle class to include not only those who were related to government officials (who control public spending) but also private entrepreneurs. In so doing, they weakened the leftist fringe of the student population, and since the economy grew at breakneck speed with close to zero unemployment, students are now more induced to plan their future in terms of career building rather than revolutionary ideals.

“On the other hand, the government has been cultivating nationalism quite surreptitiously, mostly by arousing anti-American (an old trick) and anti-Japanese (a new trick) sentiments so that people’s discontent is directed towards outside sources rather than internal deficiencies.

“So under these circumstances will there be major nation-wide social disturbances in China? Not very likely in the foreseeable future. For a social movement to have lasting impact or to evolve into a full blown revolution, there must be very strong humanistic ideals and/or messianic fervour. Both lacking in China and South East Asia in general. The growing middle class (hence the students) in China has become totally engrossed in materialistic pursuits, while the working classes lack organisation, so any disruption of social order is bound to be only regional and not nationwide, and also the working classes are actually represented in theory by the government itself! The government actually uses the grassroots level population as a Damocles Sword to rein in the middle class’s excesses.

“As for the governing class, yes it is very corrupt. But it is the class of people that the middle class people do business with. You cannot start a revolution saying that you are corrupt so you should give up your wealth and give it to me. And they are not willing to say cough it up and give it to the people because the middle class in China (and elsewhere) has become dehumanised, as always happens in any country. So it is up to the working classes to do something about it but as said above the working classes are too weakly organised to do anything significant.

“That’s why you can’t have a revolution in the US either.

“And that’s why the Sunflower Movement [Taiwan] tailed off miserably, achieving nothing while bothering everybody including themselves and especially the government whose activities are henceforth stymied, a fact which will cause more discontent and more organised actions but no real revolution. Same thing in Hong Kong.

“China on the other hand has a strong government which is not likely to soften any time soon. It is moving more towards the Singapore model rather than the Taiwan model.

“So I think even with a more relaxed social media policy a social movement so strong that it will send chills down the spine of government will not ensue. None has ever happened in Singapore which benefits from total access to Western media.

“So why is the Chinese government so nervous about the penetration of Western social media?

“Well, I have been only talking about mainstream China. There is another China, that of Tibet and Xinjiang, where conflicts are not social but racial. And because of the strategic importance of these two provinces (the two biggest in fact) they have always been targets of outside forces.

“We all know that civil wars and racially motivated wars are the bloodiest. So there are clear and present dangers in both these provinces where there are not only home grown hostilities but outside infiltrations as well – exiles from Tibet and Xinjiang, and also some foreign organisations that take an interest in their affairs.

“It is common knowledge that during the Cold War both the US and USSR faked photographs for propaganda purposes (I am proud of the fact that the Chinese almost never did that, such was Mao’s confidence in his revolution). In our age of digital phones and ‘photoshops’, you can make such fake photo by the dozen and every hour. And because of the already violent nature of the conflicts the circulation of very lurid pictures of extreme violence, whether faked or real (that come with very provocative accompanying texts of course) can cause immense impact, and large casualties.

“During the disturbances in the past years in these two provinces social media played a role not only as a rallying instrument but was also used to fuel the already strong hatred between the communities (i.e. Hans vs Uighurs, Hans vs Tibetans). With almost all Western countries at best taking a Schadenfreude attitude and at worst cheering from the sidelines you can understand China’s nervousness about what goes on in the sphere of cyber-communication.

“But is the control effective in defusing the situation? Yes and no. It is always effective in the short term, but long term a better solution has to be found. I don’t think any has been found yet.”

Pressenza: Thanks a lot Lionel.