Barely one week after a call was issued for Chinese citizens to catapult off the Middle East uprisings and launch small-scale demonstrations of their own, Chinese government officials have already begun a sweeping campaign to arrest, interrogate and at times assault anyone suspected of participating.
The anonymous call to protest was posted on the U.S.-based Chinese language news website Boxun.com on Feb. 19, asking the public to participate in weekly Sunday rallies against governmental corruption, growing inequality and lack of social services for Chinese citizens. “We call upon each person who has a dream for China to bravely come out to take an afternoon stroll at two o’clock on Sundays to look around,” the message read. “Each person who joins in will make it clear to the Chinese ruling party that if it does not fight corruption … the Chinese people will not have the patience to wait any longer.” The post listed meeting locations throughout all of China’s provinces, and quickly spread on Twitter.
Some Chinese netizens openly regarded the plan as a joke because of the anonymous identity of the post’s author. Moreover, because both Boxun.com and Twitter are often blocked in China, it remains unclear how many protesters were actually inspired to attend. That Sunday, there were no shouting demonstrators or protest signs to be found at Beijing’s meeting point in Wangfujing district, a busy shopping area. Instead, plainclothes police officers and security teams flooded the area, clearing pedestrians, scrutinizing IDs and questioning bystanders. At the meeting site in Shanghai, three people were detained.
Since then, the Chinese government’s efforts to quash any signs of dissent against the regime have been nothing short of comprehensive. References to the term “jasmine” — which has been used to describe the Middle East uprisings — were blocked from search engines and microblogging services. Internet users who reposted the original Boxun.com message were arrested. New Twitter accounts (presumably created by the government) began to furiously tweet pro-government messages, countering any support for a Chinese “Jasmine Revolution.” And as the second Sunday of scheduled protests approached, Chinese officials assaulted and detained dozens of lawyers, journalists, activists and dissidents throughout the country. BBC reporter Damian Grammaticas recounts what he faced when he tried to report from Beijing’s Wangfujing on Feb. 27:
Without warning they shoved and pushed the BBC’s cameraman. They grabbed at his camera and tried to rip it from his hands, bundling him a full 50 yards into a police van. They had earpieces in and were also taking orders.
Then the thugs turned on me. My hair was grabbed and pulled by one of the state security goons.
They tried to pick me up and throw me bodily into the van.
I found myself lying on the floor as they repeatedly slammed the door on my leg which was still part of the way out of the truck, one, two, three times, maybe more. A few shoppers looked on in confusion.
“What is remarkable is, at the end of the day, no recognizable protest took place in Wangfujing,” observed NBC News’s Adrienne Mong.
From Tiananman Square to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government has proven itself disturbingly adept at quashing public dissent and rebellion. But this heavy-handed and at times violent reaction to protests that never even fully mobilized is unusual, and some observers say it indicates the extent of paranoia within the Communist Party over the Middle East’s influence on the Chinese psyche.
But even in spite of the crackdown, would such a movement realistically take hold in China? The country’s booming economy and sophisticated firewalls to censor the Internet make it a markedly different sort of authoritarian government than any of the countries in the Middle East. Damian Grammaticas notes that “the economy is growing, people generally believe life is getting better, the Communist Party keeps refreshing its leadership every decade, and it keeps spending vast amounts on internal security.” Journalist Mark MacKinnon also remarked that “the pillars of the support for the regime in China are far stronger than they were in Egypt, Tunisia, Ukraine or Serbia.”
It’s unclear whether the third scheduled Sunday of protests will produce another large-scale security crackdown, or if the negative publicity will prompt officials to start holding back. But the government has shown that it is not taking any chances, and it seems that for now, activists hoping for the Middle East’s spirit of change to take hold in China will have to remain in waiting.