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[Cross-posted at the Daily Kos]

JISHOU, HUNAN –Chinese observers seem to draw two opposing conclusions from the Occupy Wall Street movement in the USA. The more common (state-approved) conclusion is: capitalism is bad, Marxism is good. The more thoughtful conclusion is: if the Chinese government doesn’t deal with widespread corruption, China might see similar protests in the not-too-distant future.

Recently, one of my friends asked me what Chinese reactions to OWS were. So, I’ve spent some time poring over Internet reports and blogs to get a sense how OWS is playing over here. Since my grasp of Mandarin is weak still, and my access to movers and shakers is limited, take my comments here with a grain of salt.

Official Chinese news coverage tends to characterize OWS as a confrontation between the very poor and homeless (the victims of heartless capitalism) and the rich and powerful (heartless capitalist dogs). The Communist Party is using OWS as an object lesson in the superiority of China’s Marxism.

Comments to an article about the clearing out of Zucotti Park in New York City are representative of netizen reactions. Several comments are rabidly anti-American and pro-Chinese, leading other commenters to accuse those writers of being paid pro-government trolls. (The Party reportedly pays people 5 mao, or 0.50 yuan, to post pro-government comments on the Internet.)

The more staid party publication, Global Times, predicts OWS will amount to nothing in the end and China should just wait and see what happens.

The Global Times, a widely read Chinese tabloid published by Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, noted in an editorial that “western countries can withstand street demonstrations better, since their governments are elected”.

“The conflicts may be minor or serious, but it will not bring significant change,” it added. “China needs to stay calm and observe how the street movements in the Western world develop and to make the rights choices for its own good.”

(From The Telegraph, Oct. 17.)

Lost in this state-approved presentation are several salient truths about OWS. It’s not just a poor people’s movement. OWS draws supporters from the middle class, too, including retired police chiefs, Iraqi war vets, housewives, grannies and working stiffs, as well as scruffy looking students. Chinese media ironically play up police roughly dealing with OWS protesters (subtly implying it’s a government crackdown), while obscuring the freedoms of assembly and free speech that permits OWS to be so widespread.

No one in the current government would dare remind anyone here of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square protests, which brought out thousands of students and intellectuals to rally for civil rights and resulted in a quick and brutal reaction by the Chinese police and military. Most of my students, in fact, know very little about that episode in Chinese history.

As an example of how the message of OWS has been skewed, we can look at a street protest in Zhengzhou by supporters of OWS. Some of them included cadres (important workers who are party members) who seemed to believe that OWS was a rally in support of Marxist ideals and against capitalism. Perhaps the protest was Party-sponsored.

Earlier this year, when the Jasmine Revolution was underway in North Africa and the Middle East, the government here quickly acted to foil any similar movements in China. The usual suspects (likely organizers) were rounded up and detained for several months, the Internet was “harmonized” — scrubbed of any rallying cries for a Jasmine Revolution in China — and official media portrayed the successful Arab Spring people’s movements, as yet more evidence for the superiority of the Chinese Way.

Ironies of ironies, you may be thinking, since China was after all founded as a people’s republic after a people’s revolution against a repressive government. That was before all those “peasants” ended up in power themselves, of course.

It’s that bitter irony that other Chinese recognize. The Party and its economic policies of the last 30 years have enabled China to become a major player in the world’s economy and allowed enterprising Chinese citizens to become rich beyond Mao’s imagination. Meanwhile, freedom of expression is tightly controlled, the Internet and media are closely monitored and censored (I had to use a network proxy to search for “Jasmine Revolution,” in fact), and government officials and business magnates help each other become fat cats.

To help grow the economy quickly, the State has given favored businesses considerable freedom to operate as they see fit (another irony, laissez-faire economic policy), sometimes at the expense of the common citizen, whose protests, when allowed, are ultimately pointless. We hear reports of entire city neighborhoods being evicted and razed for a new construction project, of a miner’s widow being denied access to her husband’s remains and being forced to accept a cash payment as compensation for his death, of bad food resulting from lax regulation, poor construction practices, and environmental disasters.

Many have resulted from the close personal and economic relationships that have developed between government officials, who look the other way, and the favored business leaders, who pay them to look the other way. Having given businessmen an inch, China’s political leaders have seen big business take a mile, and become a troublesome barrier to reform.

This is precisely the same message of OWS, which has not been lost on more thoughtful Chinese observers, who warn that China may yet have its own Occupy movement. As long as China can keep its growing middle class content and comfortable with material wealth, protest movements will gain no traction, however. China has largely been insulated from the economic crises of the USA and EU.

But, if the Chinese economy goes sour and middle class folks lose their jobs, homes and comfy lifestyle, China’s leaders will have an enormous problem that all the ‘Net harmonizing in the world will not solve.

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