Saturday, July 13, 2013

Why China Fears a 12-Year-Old Egyptian Boy

July 12, 2013, 6:33 p.m. ET
Why China Fears a 12-Year-Old Egyptian Boy

YouTube sensation Ali Ahmed's talk of people power and constitutionalism makes Beijing nervous.

China is an increasingly confident power, right? That's the message we're supposed to take from Beijing's investments in military hardware, assertiveness against neighbors on the high seas, and swagger through the halls of international diplomacy. So why censor a YouTube video of a 12-year-old kid talking politics on the streets of Cairo?

Young Ali Ahmed became a global Internet star this week, as footage went viral of him standing by a political demonstration and articulately denouncing Egypt's government. "I'm here today," he says in Arabic to a woman off-camera, "to help prevent Egypt from becoming a commodity owned by one person and to protest the confiscation of the constitution by one single party. We didn't get rid of a military regime to replace it with a fascist theocracy."

Recorded at a rally last October and aired online with English subtitles, the precocious boy's indictment captures the mood of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets this month and—helped by the military—threw President Mohammed Morsi out of office. "The social objectives of the [2011] revolution are yet to be achieved. Economic empowerment, freedom, and social justice," says Ali with confidence. "There are still no jobs. The police still jail people randomly. As for social justice, how can a news anchor get 30 million Egyptian pounds, while some people still pick food from the garbage?"

By Monday evening, versions of the video with Chinese subtitles were spreading across Chinese social media—and apparently making Beijing nervous. As the South China Morning Post reports, the video "ranked as the third most popular microblog post overnight until Tuesday, before it was quietly taken down from the ranking."

The specter of people power always spooks China's Communist authorities, but perhaps most alarming in this case was Ali's talk of constitutionalism, a concept that Beijing has railed against particularly hard in recent months.

"Politically speaking," says the boy in the video, "where is the constitution that represents us? For example, women are half of the society. How come there are only seven ladies in the Constituent Assembly, six of whom are Islamists? . . . Even if the constitution is nice but the assembly that drafted it is bad, we will end up with something bad. Don't bring me 80 good articles and 20 bad ones that will ruin the country, and then tell me this is a constitution." In China, Communist Party fiat is the law of the land and no nominal Constitution or National People's Congress stands in the way.

The case of Ali Ahmed is hardly the first time that Chinese censors have gotten nervous over news from Egypt. In 2011, as street protests were forcing longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak from power, major Chinese Internet sites such as Weibo (akin to Twitter) and blocked searches for "Egypt." When Chinese Internet users responded to the Arab Spring two years ago by calling for a "Jasmine Revolution" at home, censors began quashing digital references to jasmine in all its forms—tea, flower, etc.

With Chinese diplomats in Washington this week for the latest round of great-power diplomacy (the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue), observers spoke of mutual respect, common interests and China as a responsible stakeholder in the world order. Publicly and privately, Chinese officials sought respect as a fellow superpower.

Yet at home China's censors kept working. They signal weakness, not strength—a government afraid of its own people and the butterfly effect of a street vendor lighting himself on fire in Tunisia. Afraid even of a 12-year-old talking into a camera in faraway Egypt.

Mr. Feith is an editorial writer at The Wall Street Journal Asia.
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