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The dragon is trembling

Beijing's alleged hacking of NYT is a sign of the regime's fear of a Chinese spring.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2013 21:31 IST

As luck would have it, I was in Beijing when word came of China's apparent hacking of the New York Times. The newspaper says it became the target of sustained cyber-attack immediately after it had revealed the vast fortune - estimated as 'at least $2.7bn' - amassed by the family of China's outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao. Among the dead giveaways: hostile activity on the NYT's system dropped off during Chinese public holidays. It seems even State-sponsored hackers need a day off.

If CCTV, China's State broadcaster - now with its own 24-hour, English-language news channel - mentioned the story at all, then I missed it. But it raises an intriguing question: was this the act of a regime that is strong or weak? It takes nerve to attack a prestige institution of the global superpower. But it also looks nervy to be so clearly rattled by one disobliging media report. So which is it? After a week immersed in conversation with Chinese scholars, foreign diplomats and NGO observers, it's hard to disagree with the analyst who told me the answer is both: China's rulers are simultaneously "hugely powerful and hugely insecure".

Put the question another way. Two years ago, when the Arab spring first blossomed, there began a global guessing game as to who would be next. By rights, China should have been an obvious candidate. It's ruled by an authoritarian government, the trappings of totalitarianism still in place.

And yet the notion is barely discussed, the prospect of a serious challenge to the regime regarded as somewhere between remote and nonexistent. The first explanation is the most obvious: the Chinese people are getting richer. One estimate says 300 million regard themselves as direct beneficiaries of the Chinese economic success story with a stake in maintaining the status quo. The novelist and law professor He Jiahong sees the difference between his students now and those he taught before 1989: today's generation, born after those crushed protests, has no interest in politics, only in getting on and making money. "They want a peaceful life," he told me. They suspect political action "would only bring chaos, like in Egypt".

Others suggest that, despite the absence of democracy, many Chinese people hardly believe themselves oppressed. So long as they don't criticise the ruling elite directly, they have fairly broad freedom of speech, are able to vent on Chinese social networks such as Weibo without fearing a midnight knock on the door -a useful safety valve for the regime, ensuring dissent does not become so pent-up it eventually explodes.

With Weibo users now in the high hundreds of millions, the regime regards this new political space with trepidation.

Which is not to say a challenge is coming soon: I was told the Communist party has perhaps two or three decades in which to reform. The regime that rules China is mighty indeed. But the dragon seems to be trembling within.