In mid-February, a mysterious posting on a Chinese language website called on Chinese citizens to take to the streets for low-risk meet-ups at locations with heavy pedestrian traffic throughout the country, starting on Sunday February 20 at 2 p.m. (Beijing local time). Labeled by the organizers as China's "Jasmine Revolution," the organizers clearly intended to hitch a ride on the democratic momentum the protesters the Middle East and North Africa have gained over the last two months.
What has followed has been a fascinating exposition of the degree to which the Chinese regime is reliant on thuggishness and lawlessness to suppress dissent and popular dissatisfaction. In the run-up to February 20, the Chinese authorities—who were already heavily censoring the Internet for terms related to events in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere—added the word "jasmine" to the list of prohibited terms and, on the day before the first scheduled protests, "tomorrow" also became a forbidden word. The Chinese authorities also launched a massive round up of dissidents, journalists, activists, and lawyers from all over China—which they still have not let up on. Dozens have been detained, and several prominent activists have disappeared over the past three weeks.
On the day of the first "Jasmine Revolution," there were more western journalists and police than protesters at the designated locations in Beijing and Shanghai. By far the most notable attendee that day was U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who claimed to have happened unknowingly upon the Beijing protest as he was crossing Tiananmen Square with his family. (His name was, afterwards, blocked for online searching in China.) Subsequent Sundays have seen few if any actual protesters show up at the designated spots—but overwhelming numbers of police and other security forces continue to converge on the protest sites.
Instead of ignoring what would otherwise be an insignificant, if not embarrassing, showing of non-support for China's putative democracy movement, Beijing's authoritarian leaders have managed to turn these non-events into a demonstration of their own paranoid style. For example, Beijing has essentially declared war on the international media based in China. Longtime Beijing-based foreign correspondents report of being harassed, threatened, and warned by security personnel that covering Jasmine-related events could cost them their visas—and even worse. One reporter's young child was interrogated by authorities when it answered the phone, while others were physically accosted by security personnel. Several journalists have had cameras taken and memory cards erased, and others report security personnel following them everywhere they go. When the Chinese foreign ministry was asked last Friday if the government had rescinded regulations issued around the 2008 Beijing Olympics that were intended to give foreign media the right to report on stories in China, the spokeswoman denied that there was any change of the rules to a room of incredulous journalists, many of whom had been on the receiving end of the public security apparatus' "charm offensive" in recent days. She then lashed out at the assembled press, accusing them of fomenting unrest themselves. Her boss, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, did one better on Monday when he flatly denied that foreign journalists had been beaten up by security personnel, despite incontrovertible video footage of the attacks and a video cameraman who had to be hospitalized for his injuries. The government subsequently announced that it was, in fact, rolling back the 2008 regulations and reinstating restrictions on foreign reporters.