The Facebook page set up in the wake of the crackdown on the Bersih rally on July 9 to demand prime minister Najib Razak’s resignation continues to swell with fans, reaching Malaysia’s favorite figure this afternoon.

At 2:07 pm today, the page, which aimed to bring together 100,000 “Like” clicks from Facebook users, has recorded 202,020 fans, growing by more than 80,000 in a short span of a week.

The rapid growth of its fans would probably make it the single most popular Facebook page with a political campaign in Malaysia. Another Facebook page set up last year to oppose Najib’s announcement of the construction of a 100-storey tower in the heart of the city has todate managed to gather close to 300,000 fans.

Since then a spate of Facebook pages with a cacophony of anti-government themes have been set up, everything from poking fun at Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor to urging unity to support Muslim scholars. At least three recent ones are targeted against Najib’s deputy Muhyiddin Yasin, Home minister Hishammuddin Hussein and MCA president Chua Soi Lek, all of whom have publicly condemned Bersih sympathisers. 

None have however emerged as successful as the one calling for Najib’s removal. The page calling for Hishammuddin’s resignation managed to gather a little more than 16,000 fans at press time, just 8 percent of the anti-Najib page.

Not to be outdone, UMNO loyalists have also resorted to making their presence felt using the social media.

One page purportedly launched by UMNO Youth’s ‘Patriot’ group  in support of Najib has so far attracted 9,590 fans.

On The Stream we were joined by Ramesh Srinivasan, an assistant professor of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles who recently returned from conducting ethnographic work for several weeks in Egypt. He was primarily looking at the role social media has played in Egypt’s demonstrations and he posted this about his conclusions on his blog: “Running across freeways with labor organizers, speaking with taxi drivers and laborers, and visiting rural areas of Egypt convinces me that neither social media technologies nor the youth that use them caused or directly led a revolution where people from every walk of life took to the street.” 

While social media had an effect on the demonstrations, Ramesh pointed out that not enough focus has been on the power of organisers who used more traditional techniques. “There are people who are able to rally the masses, get the masses out into the street and they have all sorts of techniques for doing this and yet also be able to interpret the social media so they can impact journalism, they can impact funding, they can impact all other sorts of support. So it’s how you work both.”

The linking of the online and offline worlds worked because ” they were united around this idea that this regime had to go.” And it’s on-going today, he says. “There’s still an alignment which works perfectly with social media and with the logic of the street against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces…but the idea of working out all one’s different positions and developing consensus is a hugely problematic to this day in Egypt.”

During our discussions, members of our online community weighed in via Twitter. @HarisAlisic downplayed the role of social media, saying: “social media is just a tool, it does not cause nor drive revolutions. Suharto of Indonesia was driven out before twitter.” But @GlbalCitizn4Pce wrote about its additive effect: “Social Media gives #Revolution its biggest advantages: Speed & Numbers.” Thumbnail image: Egyptian protesters at a protest in Cairo, July 12, 2011. [EPA/Mohamed Omar]

Unfolding this month at the Boston Reviewis ”China’s Other Revolution“–an essay by MIT political scientist Edward S. Steinfeld and a series of responses, all on the subject of whether and when real democratic reform will happen, or is already happening, in authoritarian, oligarchic China.
Steinfeld is mostly dismissive of the ongoing “Jasmine Revolution,” which Ayushman Jamwal writes about today at Waging Nonviolence, claiming (incorrectly in past tense) that it “drew small crowds and little energy.” Nevertheless, he urges us not to interpret the recent spate of crackdowns and arrests by the government–including the arrest and subsequent release of the artist Ai Weiwei–as indicative that the regime’s hold on power is especially strong. On the contrary:

Those who doubt that profound change and harsh repression can coexist in China should look to the history of South Korea and Taiwan. In January 1987, just seven years after a democratic uprising was crushed in the South Korean city of Gwangju and a few months before the military-backed regime would yield to popular demands for open elections, student protestors were being summarily rounded up by the police. At least one of the students died during interrogation. That same year Taiwan’s Kuomintang government announced the end of 38 years of martial law, a key step toward the establishment of democracy there. But in the months before the announcement, dissenters were still being shipped off, often by secretive military tribunals, to the notorious gulag on Green Island. Crackdowns on opponents, extrajudicial detentions, and violence are often the last-ditch efforts of authoritarian regimes.

He goes on to detail the ways in which China’s many economic and educational reforms are pointing toward inevitable political change in the next generation or so, which is already be in the works.

The responses to Steinfeld’s essay are not so optimistic. Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, emphasizes the differences between China’s political structure and that of the other cases. What we’re dealing with here, he says, is a distinctive Soviet-style system with tendrils in all areas of public life, and which won’t take easily to gradual, liberalizing reforms.

This is not a garden-variety personal or military dictatorship. There are only four other regimes structured like China’s, in Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba. China’s network of Communist Party organizations, its conservative leadership in a national politburo, the preeminence of Party organizations over all government institutions, its subservient legal system, and its massive and growing security apparatus are all familiar to those who recall communist systems of 30 years ago. The recent crackdown is a symptom of the survival, indeed the revitalization, of a Soviet model of governance. The continuing strength of that model is not altered by revolutionary changes in the economy or by the staffing of government institutions by younger, better educated, and more worldly administrators. China’s economy and society may remind us of South Korea’s and Taiwan’s in an earlier era, but the core political institutions, and in recent years the political attitudes of the leaders, are more reminiscent of the Soviet Union during the late Brezhnev era. This makes China a deeply paradoxical polity, presenting its leaders with a real dilemma.

Baogang He, of Deakin University in Australia, is no more hopeful. While he discusses aspects of political reform on the local level–including citizens’ “forums”–he emphasizes that the current wave of repression is strategic; its purpose is to ensure a smooth transition of power in 2012. Again, he finds it hard to see how a political system like that in China can move toward liberalization when the system itself is structured in such a way so as to err on the side of repression.

Internal debate concerning political reforms has continued amid the repression, but to little effect. Premier Wen Jiabao has made public statements in favor of reforms, and Yu Keping, a pro-reform scholar and official, has floated the concept of co-governance, which involves both government and civil society. But these discussions gain little traction outside the confines of the Party; even the phrase “civil society” has been banned by propaganda officials, making it clear that the concerns of the security apparatus trump reformist ideas.

Professor He concludes by pointing out that China’s politics is not just a concern for Chinese, but for the whole world.

The way in which the Chinese government treats its own people provides an indication of how it will behave internationally as China’s power grows and international constraints on its exercise decrease.

One need only think of countries like Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and North Korea, whose egregious human-rights abuses are aided and abetted by Chinese support in various forms. But then one can also think of the United States, where the elephant in the room amidst the current Congressional posturing on the national debt is China, which owns enough of that debt to be, perhaps, the real decider.

What all the Boston Review contributors have in common, however, is a disregard for the prospects of grassroots, broad-based resistance. They write off the Jasmine Revolution as a failure–again, even while noting the widespread repression it has forced the regime to enact. They toss off figures about the tens of thousands of mass protests in China each year (or, by some accounts, hundreds of thousands), but they don’t say anything about the efforts of young Chinese like Gaius Gracchus–whom Ayushman Jamwal’s essay profiles–who are working to draw together this unrest around the country into a cohesive movement.
These scholars, who focus their attention on business and political elites, are inevitably going to be blind to the real source from which real change will have to come, in China or anywhere: from below, from ordinary people.

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