Paranoia the chink in China's power
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 $2.7 billion'' - amassed by the family of China's outgoing Premier, Wen Jiabao.
Among the 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 a 24-hour English news channel - mentioned the story, 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? It seems 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. China should have been an obvious candidate.
Yet the notion is barely discussed, the prospect of a serious challenge to China's regime regarded as somewhere between remote and nonexistent. The first explanation is the most obvious: the Chinese people are getting richer.
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 said. 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 and are able to vent on social networks, such as Weibo, without fear - a useful safety valve for the regime.
It helps the authorities that public anger can be easily directed at an alternative target, namely Japan. Nationalist fury at China's enduring enemy is rising, fuelled by the East China Sea islands dispute.
We in the West have played a role too. Pre-1989, Chinese pro-democracy campaigners would look westward and see not only a different political model but also greater economic success. They assumed that only the former could deliver the latter. That assumption now lies in pieces, thanks to the contrast between a roaring China and a stagnating west. The financial crash of 2008 broke the appeal of the western model, says Professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University. ''China is emancipated from that feeling of inferiority,'' he says.
All of which should leave the regime feeling secure in its own position. Yet it hardly acts that way. ''They're acutely aware of the risk,'' reports one diplomat, describing how closely Beijing watched the Arab spring, seeking to learn from the ousted despots' mistakes. One immediate response was to prevent the possibility of large crowds, flooding popular areas with security personnel to disperse potential groups, even ordering street-sweeping vehicles to drive closer to the pavement to keep people moving. There may be some freedom of speech in today's China, but there's next to no freedom of association.
Evidence of that nervousness comes in the way the regime caves rapidly in the face of China's equivalent of a Twitter storm: call it a Weibo wave. Provincial official Yang Dacai paid the price last year after he was photographed grinning incongruously at the scene of a road crash that killed 36. Weibo users turned on him. Feeling the heat, the party investigated Yang for corruption and he was gone.
With Weibo users now in the high hundreds of millions, the regime regards this new political space with trepidation. The next wave could come over pollution. Some say the smog that clouded Beijing this week is testing the regime's legitimacy: what good is a government that can't ensure air clean enough to breathe? Once in denial over what they called ''sea mist'', China's rulers now discuss the smog as if they know they have to act - and fear the consequences if they fail. The regime that rules China is mighty. But the dragon seems to be trembling within. Guardian