So, what’s there to be afraid of? First, the most convenient scapegoats no longer work. Unlike the color revolutions, Beijing can’t easily blame collapsing Arab regimes on the United States or “foreign hands.” Most of these autocrats were U.S. allies, and it is undeniable they are being toppled by their own people. Moreover, the revolutions may all be aimed at Arab rulers, but these regimes are hardly practicing a single strain of authoritarianism. The countries and their conditions vary, revealing a mix of monarchies, military dictatorships, petrol strongmen, and populations that range from incredibly rich to desperately poor. And then there is the shock factor. “We’ve been surprised, totally surprised, in terms of the size and scale,” one of the Chinese government’s leading Middle East experts told me. “All of a sudden, everything that was impossible seems possible.”
The anonymous calls for protest circulating online asked people to congregate at one of roughly 20 sites in cities across China at 2 p.m. last Sunday and just “go for a stroll.” I visited the spot in Beijing, in the upscale shopping area of Wangfujing. Police and plainclothes officers were out in force. The mood took on a surreal quality as growing numbers of people turned up, walking slowly in a loop around the designated street corner. Everyone stared at everyone else and waited, curious to see if something would happen.