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.
In response, the Obama administration—which had previously declared attacks on journalists in the Middle East "unacceptable," and which has lately been on a big Internet and press freedom push— has badly fumbled the message. Last week, Press Secretary Jay Carney wanly proclaimed that the White House found reports of journalists in China being beaten and harassed "disturbing," then called on China's "public security authorities" (that is, the very people harassing the journalists) to protect—yes, protect—people from harassment and intimidation. Somewhere in Beijing, China's leaders are chuckling at this sophistry.
As both Howard French and Evan Osnos noted this week, one of the ironies in all this is that the very reporters that Beijing's thug state has cracked down on have largely spent the past few weeks asserting that "China is not Egypt" and generally downplaying the likelihood of any kind of popular uprising in China. As the crackdown has continued in the face of pretty much non-existent actual protests, some of the journalists who cover China have picked up on the theme that perhaps the whole Jasmine Revolution business was designed not to draw the Chinese people into the streets, but to make the Chinese security apparatus appear ridiculous as it runs around chasing its tail, creating lots of bad press along the way. If that were the case, then the Jasmine Revolution in China has been wildly successful. As French notes:
At the simplest level, it is hard to understand how a call to protest can be declared a failure if it virtually causes a nation's entire security apparatus to come out in force and to take extraordinary measures of one kind after another, as has happened in China.
The Chinese police state has exposed its normally hidden steel over the past three weeks, and has paradoxically come across as incredibly insecure and frightened of its own shadow. It is the very opposite of the unstoppable China juggernaut image that has gotten so much attention in recent years. As protest leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Aung San Suu Kyi have repeatedly noted, fear is the biggest obstacle that must be overcome in order for people to stand up for themselves against those controlling the coercive power of the state. By making China’s security apparatus appear to jump to their tune, the Jasmine organizers are taking an important step toward unwinding the fear that serves as background noise for Chinese citizens who may object to the manner in which the regime holds onto its prerogatives.
As the National Peoples' Congress convenes in Beijing this week, there will be lots of pomp and high-level effort to showcase the regimes proficiency and success in leading the country. But the fragile state also will be vividly on display, looking absolutely terrified by the idea that the Chinese people might be motivated by a small fragrant white flower with a forbidden name.