In the last few weeks I have felt an odd dark and complicated cloud pass over me. At the same time, many of my Sino-file friends have fallen silent, a sharp change for the usual gregarious bunch who are known for their ability to suddenly launch into their specific version of the China-rising theory without warning (or prompting in some cases). I am included in this bunch. I suddenly don’t know what to say about China. And I realized the other day what the problem is: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Wisconsin.

In single-party, authoritarian China, why haven’t the citizens jumped onto the revolutionary bandwagon that has traveled from Cairo to Madison?

Twenty years ago students joined hands around a giant paper mache replica of the Statue of Liberty in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square demanding a free press and American-style human rights only to be brutally pummeled by China’s People’s Liberation Army. But in today’s China, political passion has been smudged out by get-rich aspirations as many Chinese ride the wave of economic growth in that country.

Yet China remains in many ways a repressive state. The government controls where people live, how many children they have and what news and information they have access to. There are no formal channels to file complaints. Child laborers work 15 hour days 7 days a week with only two bathroom breaks. Corruption runs rampant.  People die every day from toxic water and unbreathable air. And citizens who try to speak out against their government are blackmailed or jailed without a trial. Journalists who stray from the status quo end up getting their hands cut off by mysterious thugs in the middle of the night. Activists are “harmonized” (aka disappear).

Like in Egypt, the cost of food and housing in China is rising rapidly stretching a working person’s wallet to a dehumanizing degree. Egyptians and Chinese are both watching vast amounts of wealth flow into their country and disproportionately to the wealthy as the gap between rich and poor widens. If these conditions set the stage for revolution in Cairo, why not in Beijing?

Something did happen in Beijing. A sort of non-event, I guess.  A planned “Jasmine Revolution” was scheduled by unknown organizers to take place last Saturday in front of the McDonalds in Beijing’s equivalent of the Champs Elysee, a pedestrians shopping street a couple blocks from Tiananmen Square called Wangfujing. The problem was that no one showed up except foreign correspondents and police.  As one observer noted: “No one shouted slogans, no one held signs, it was just a group of people standing around photographing each other.”

So why didn’t the revolutionary fervor spread to China? One blogger explains that “discontent towards the government in China hasn’t translated into meaningful opposition.” Another blogger argues that Chinese people don’t protest their government because they are afraid that no government will only lead to chaos. The general consensus within the China blogosphere (with the notable exception of this post from the Wall Street Journal) is that Egypt in not China.

These are good points. One additional reason might be that there is a difference between big “D” American style democracy and little “d” democracy. Big Democracy clings to the ideals of civic and political rights, private property, individualism and the rule of law. Little democracy is less dogmatic and it revolves around political participation, social and economic rights and rising the standard of living. I would argue that while the Chinese Communist Party has rejected Big Democracy for years, it is making notable shifts in the direction of society marked by transparency, rights and political participation China style.

For example, last year Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called for freedom of the press in a CNN interview. He continued, “The people’s wishes for, and needs for, democracy and freedom are irresistible.” Chinese Environmental Policy Czar, Xie Zhenhua, made a historic shift in Chinese government policy in October when he called on non-governmental organizations to play a constructive role in policy making. In December of 2010, over 200 Chinese NGOs attended a UN summit on climate change and lobbied their government to take a firmer stand against climate change with much of the freedom and determination of their Western counterparts.

China’s gradual changes may not move people to tears, inspire art (like it did for my god-mother in Cairo) or cause people to swing from lamp posts and sing national anthems but there are important political shifts taking place. They may not be the events that draw the foreign correspondents, but they are real, important and meaningful.