What’s Happening With China’s Jasmine Revolution?

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 3:30 PM EST

Since an anonymous tweet called for peaceful public gatherings in more than a dozen cities across China on February 20, many in and outside the country are offering their two cents about what to make of last Sunday's events, dubbing them the Jasmine Revolution or Jasmine Rallies. The so-called protests didn't escalate beyond the large roaming crowd that formed in front of a McDonald's in Beijing's Wangfujing, a major retail shopping district. But whatever started on Sunday isn't over yet. So, if you've been preoccupied with the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and even Wisconsin, read on to get up to speed about what's happening in China. And stay tuned for further updates.

Why is it called the Jasmine Revolution/Rallies? The term borrows from the pro-democracy protests that broke out in Tunisia last month, which some called the Jasmine Revolution, a play on the "color revolutions" that took hold in Eastern Europe in the early 2000s.

How did it begin? The first tweet calling for protests in China seems to have been posted around February 15. According to the Beijing-based technology blogger Jason Ng, the tweet came from the username Shudong, and said that at 2:00 p.m. CET on February 20, "every large city in China would be conducting a Jasmine Revolution, the details of which would later be posted on a certain website." (This anonymous account has since been deleted. China Digital Times has the full post translated into English.) Early Saturday morning, the US-based Chinese news portal Boxun.com received an anonymous report detailing where the protests would take place the next day and published the information. By 9:00 a.m., the site was attacked. Later that night in China tweets with the hashtag #cn220 reposted the Boxun report, alerting journalists and policemen alike.

What actually happened on Sunday in China? Was there a protest? It's hard to say. In Beijing, by most accounts, many people who showed up for the protest were foreign journalists along with uniformed and plainclothes Chinese police. If protesters were present, it was almost impossible to discern them from the usual throng of pedestrians strolling through Wangfujing. (See photos taken from the scene here and here.) Blogger Charles Custer of ChinaGeeks, who arrived at the scene around 1:40 p.m. to see what was happening, noted the ambiguous "revolutionary" atmosphere because even though a dense crowd formed, no one seemed to actually be protesting. Peter Foster's account in The Telegraph largely agrees with this. The crowd grew denser after busloads of police showed up. One video shows Jon Huntsman, the soon-to-resign US ambassador to China, in the masses donning sunglasses. Wall Street Journal reporters at the scene recounted his cameo. (An embassy spokesman later stated that his family happened to be strolling through the area at the time.) Sinocentric and Transpacifica (h/t Alex Pasternack) translated two different accounts by two young Chinese witnesses: In the first account it's clear that some were there to protest but pretended otherwise, and that some even had prepared banners but did not unfurl them; the second one is less explicit. Still, as the New York Times and Time reported over the weekend, a handful of protesters were in fact present, albeit quiet. One person who tried to place a jasmine flower in front of McDonald's was immediately stopped by the police. In the end, at least four suspected protesters were arrested, but there wasn't any violence besides some shoving and pushing. Media also cited heavy police presence in the southern coastal cities of Shanghai, Hangzhou, and other cities, in which smaller crowds gathered.

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Why hasn't the revolutionary movement taken off in China as it has in the Middle East and North Africa? The protest called for on Sunday is precisely the kind of thing that China's security authorities and web censorship system are designed to prevent. On February 12, a day after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned, China's politburo reportedly met to discuss how to "adjust foreign policy" in light of the events in the Middle East. In the meeting's summary, the officials called upon the Propaganda Department to "halt all independent reports, commentaries, and discussions (including Internet threads), whether in the print media or the Internet, on the situations in Egypt and similar places." According to tech blogger Ng, soon after sending the initial February 15 tweet, the person using the Shudong Twitter handle "was pursued by police." And on February 19, six notable Chinese dissidents, including Teng Biao, disappeared after they were "invited to drink tea"—a method employed by Chinese authorities to restrict activists' travels. Over the next day or two, a number of new Twitter users who Ng says were likely members of the wumaodang (online commentators enlisted by the government to promote the party message, otherwise known as the "fifty-cent party") told people not to "participate in the Jasmine Revolution, that the Jasmine Revolution was a secret plot by the Americans, and that participating in the Jasmine Revolution was against the law." Another Chinese official wrote in an article that the Chinese government faces domestic unrest and challenges from "hostile Western forces" that it will fight with more sophisticated controls, according to Reuters. Simultaneously, the popular Chinese microblog Renren.com designated the words "tomorrow," "today," and "Jasmine Revolution" as sensitive words and began self-censoring them. And according to the state-run China Daily, Chinese President Hu Jintao on Saturday urged officials to ensure a "harmonious and stable society full of vitality." Meanwhile, according to human rights groups, authorities rounded up about 100 activists, placing them under house arrest before the protest was even scheduled to take place. Ironically, the Chinese government's early and strong response to the online calls for protest may have backfired, says Ng: "I felt absolutely certain that [the initial tweet] was a joke. If the government hadn't had such a big reaction, I believe that not so many people would have participated in the Jasmine Revolution."

What do the protestors want? If the initial tweet was a joke, the humor is now lost. The protest organizers (who remain anonymous) posted an open letter on February 22 that says they "initiated China's 'Jasmine revolution' because [they] hoped to borrow momentum from the democratization of North Africa and the Middle East and [they] urge China to reform or change." They lament that the Chinese constitution is defunct, that the human rights situation there is "disgusting," and that China has been reduced to a dark hole of resources—and that the root of all this is the autocratic regime. (China Support Network Blog has the translation.) In their update to the post, the organizers say they "do not necessarily have to overthrow the current government," and that they don't care if they "implement a one party system, a two party system, or even a three party system." But they do demand "the government and officials to accept the supervision of ordinary Chinese people," and "an independent judiciary."

Are the protestors a small minority or are ordinary citizens actually ready to take to the streets? It depends. With a widening wealth gap, worsening pollution, pension and healthcare systems that are unable to accommodate China's aging population and migrant workers, and a bottleneck of college graduates with not enough jobs, public discontent is on the rise. Official statistics support the trend: At least 90,000 "mass incidents" were reported in China in 2006, the last year the figure was released. (A more current and unofficial count is much higher.) But most often, these grudges are targeted toward local officials, not the central government. (A survey last month showed that 88 percent of Chinese trust their government, though the study's methodology has since been criticized.) In fact, the Chinese central government's control over the web is such that it creates a false sense of speech freedom by encouraging Chinese netizens to use the internet to help weed out local corruption. On the whole, broader criticism of central government policy or the Chinese Communist Party is considered a threat to social stability and is not permitted. Stepping outside these boundaries, including explicit calls for pro-democracy protests, is out of the question. In recent months, even some high-profile Chinese figures have called out for serious political reform, including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, but he, too, was censored.

What's going to happen next? In their updated post published on February 22 (and translated by Human Rights in China), the organizers call on the Chinese people to join in "non-violent non-cooperation to make the Chinese government respect the basic rights of the Chinese people" and to gather every Sunday at 2:00 p.m. in designated locations, instructing those "who are in cities not listed" to "go to the central square of [their] city."

Is this Tiananmen 2.0 in the making? Highly unlikely, though something is in the air. During the height of demonstrations in Cairo, some drew comparisons to the pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But as Chang Ping at China Media Project notes, the "situation in China today is vastly different from that in the 1980s, and very different from the situation in Egypt," but that "political reform must make it onto the agenda somehow, and soon." And as Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations (who I worked for from 2007 to 2010), writes, now that Muammar Qaddafi (and not just dissidents or "Western spies") is resurrecting "the ghost of June 1989," the leadership in Beijing needs to figure out how it will approach the new wave of demonstrations: Will it sit down with protestors and meet their needs, or will it quash and wipe them off the map as it did two decades ago? Looks more like the latter for now. The Chinese Human Rights Defenders reported on February 25 that the on-going crackdown "may be one of the most severe actions taken by the government against Chinese activists in recent years." Meanwhile, a new editorial in the state-run Global Times shows the government remains dismissive in public: "Turmoil in China is wishful thinking," the paper says, adding, "With a colossal population, China inevitably has a few dissidents, who are energized by the public revolts in the Middle East," but that Sunday was merely "a number of Western journalists [gathering] at an appointed place [to watch] a performance art version of the 'Jasmine Revolution' given by several Chinese."

How can I follow what's happening in China? The fastest updates are coming through on Twitter (#cn220 and #cn227). Rebecca MacKinnon, Forbes' Gady Epstein, along with China Digital Times, China Media Project, the Journal's China Real Time blog, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, and Radio Free Asia, are posting updates around the clock. Check back here, too, as we'll be updating this page frequently.

Update 1, Friday, Feb. 25, 7:18 p.m. EST/Feb. 26, 8:18 a.m. in Beijing: Just over a day before the next set of planned jasmine rallies in China, the crackdown on and off the web is intensifying. Chinese censors are now blocking Amb. Jon Huntsman's name after a video of him and his family "strolling" through Wangfujing last Sunday went viral. LinkedIn was also blocked after discussing the jasmine revolution in a forum (it is now unblocked). Chinese Human Rights Defenders reports that five activists (Ran Yunfei, Liang Haiyi, Ding Mao, Chen Wei, and Hua Chunhui) have been officially charged with either "subversion," "inciting subversion," or "leaking state secrets," all which can result in a jail sentence of anywhere between 10 years to life.

The second set of Jasmine rallies, planned for this Sunday in 27 cities throughout China, including in Xinjiang and Tibet, are now viewable on a Google map. The protest organizers are calling on Chinese netizens to dub Sunday's protests as "liang hui"  (两会) or "two meetings"—the shorthand name for the upcoming annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. Earlier this afternoon in Washington, DC, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing on China's internal dilemmas in light of last weekend's protests and the implications for the United States, and have posted the written testimonies.

Update 2, Sunday, Feb. 27, 6:05 a.m. EST/Sunday, Feb. 27, 7:05 p.m. in Beijing: Hours after the second wave of jasmine rallies/strolls were scheduled to take place in China, no major acts of protest seem to have broken out but government authorities remain on high alert, keeping a close eye on foreign journalists. Around 2:00 p.m. police forces were back in city centers in large numbers. The Associated Press reports that in Shanghai's People's Square, uniformed police blew whistles and shouted at people to keep moving, though some 200 of them—"a combination of onlookers and quiet sympathizers—braved the noise." In Beijing, street cleaning trucks rolled through Wangfujing, spraying water to keep "crowds pressed to the edges." Some members of foreign press at the scene were dealt with in a more confrontational manner: Mark Mackinnon tweets that two photographers and two TV crews were manhandled. Beijing-based journalist Jordan Pouille tweets that he was arrested today, and when brought to the police station he saw seven other journalists there. The Daily Telegraph's Malcolm Moore tweets that photographer Adam Dean was punched in the face and kicked on the ground. Shanghai seems to have gotten a larger turn-out, while apparently no-one showed up for protest in Harbin. Meanwhile, photos from Jordan Pouille and McClatchy Newspapers's Tom Lasseter show that the planned protest sites are getting fenced off for "construction," blocking access and obstructing visibility.

Time's Beijing correspondent Austin Ramzy, who got a call on Friday around 5 p.m. to meet with Chinese police, got an earful about China's "reporting rules" when he declined the request. He wasn't alone: "Over the past 24 hours several other journalists have reported being contacted by the police, who apparently are trying to warn all Beijing-based foreign correspondents ahead of [Sunday's] scheduled protests. That's a step I haven't encountered while reporting in China over the past four years." He adds that a China Daily article from Friday stating that journalists must apply for approval before conducting interviews in Beijing gives "rise to the possibility that police will use this notice to justify widespread restrictions on reporting."

Update 3, Monday, Feb. 28, 4:05 EST/Tuesday, Feb. 29, 5:05 a.m. in Beijing: CNN's Eunice Yoon and Jo Kent have shared a video report (embedded below) from yesterday's events in Beijing, during which foreign reporters, camera crews, and photographers were roughed up and/or taken to a police station nearby. Stephen Engle from Bloomberg TV was reportedly "black and blue" then hospitalized after being beaten by plainclothes police. The BBC's Damian Grammaticas was also injured: "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." Photographer Adam Dean, who was also beaten, has photos from Sunday. Both the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China and US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman have since deplored the attacks on journalists.

Radio Free Asia reports today that several Shanghai-based activists and petitioners were harassed and some were detained over the weekend under suspicion of calling for the Jasmine protests. Ma Yalian, who previously spent 18 months in a labor camp after writing an article criticizing China's petition process, told RFA that she was taken away on Saturday morning and is being held in Qingpu. Activists in Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou were either held within or forced to leave their homes. Meanwhile, the government-run Global Times publishes another editorial arguing that the "government has already recognized the Internet as a platform for building democratic politics in China," pointing to an aptly-timed online chat that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had with web users on Sunday morning (prior to the scheduled protests).

Update 4, Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2:50 p.m. EST/Wednesday, Mar. 2, 3:50 a.m. in Beijing: China's Jasmine rally organizers are calling for another round of peaceful protests (or "strolls") this Sunday, March 6. Despite media reports that notable crowds on February 27 did not seem to appear in locations other than Beijing and Shanghai, the still-anonymous Jasmine organizers said they received feedback showing that on Sunday the jasmine movement "spread to over 100 cities, largely exceeding [their] initial expectations of 27 cities." The latest call to action is being made on social networking sites blocked in China since Boxun.com, the initial website used to disseminate the organizers' messages, announced over the weekend that it would no longer disseminate "Jasmine"-related information.

While Chinese police used brute force on Sunday to deny foreign journalists access to protest sites, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said on Tuesday that regulations on foreign reporters' interviews have not changed and that "the Beijing police properly handled the incident at Wangfujing." While chronicling Yu's statement, McClatchy's Tom Lasseter tweeted: "Q: Why do you think the journalists were on Wangfujing? Chinese MOFA spox Jiang Yu: 'I don't think you should ask me that question.'"

And over at the New York Times, five scholars debate "Why China Is Nervous About the Arab Uprisings." One contributor, Georgia Institute of Technology professor Fei-Ling Wang, explains the Chinese government's sense of insecurity behind its strong reaction to the calls for protest:

A key reason for this paradoxical sense of insecurity, as it has been suggested by many already, is the profound and growing incompatibility between China’s rapidly expanding economy and diversifying society and the essentially unchanged political system and governance structure, which breed corruption and injustice, making social conflicts and tensions worse.

A confident and powerful government should not be so deeply distrustful of its own people, many of whom feel genuinely proud of the country's achievements over the past three decades. A repeat of 1989 is not an option. Festering grievances and conflicts must be taken seriously, and the people given recourse. To head off large disturbances, Beijing must figure out a smarter way to govern a nation of 1.3 billion.

Another reason for the Chinese government to be nervous: the 52nd anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising is coming up on March 10. The Tibetan Review reports that senior Chinese officials recently met to discuss maintaining stability in "Tibet and other Tibetan-inhabited areas in the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan." In 2008, riots in Tibet left an estimated 99 dead amid clashes with authorities, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Update 5, Tuesday, Mar. 1, 3:10 p.m. EST/Wednesday, Mar. 2, 4:10 a.m. in Beijing: "Why did China tweet a revolution and then have almost no one show up?" John Kennedy at Global Voices asks this question then shares a useful round-up of tweets (translated into English) that show the nature of the "revolutionary" discussion that preceded the first day of planned protest on February 20.

Update 6, Tuesday, Mar. 1, 8:55 p.m. EST/Wednesday, Mar. 2, 9:55 a.m. in Beijing: A few additions:

  • The Foreign Correspondents Club in China tells its members in an email that employees from five news organizations reported how Chinese plainclothed police "grabbed journalists, dragged them into alleys or shops and then forcibly erased images from their cameras," according to the New York Times.
  • At Foreign Policy, Human Rights Watch Asia researcher Nicholas Bequelin argues that the Chinese Communist Party "is confident it can arrest, detain, disappear, and put under house arrest an ever-growing number of activists without having to pay a price in the international community" and that "unfortunately, Beijing seems to be correct about this." That is with this important caveat: "Even if the kind of mass popular protests witnessed in the Arab world in recent weeks are still far off in China, the growing chasm between the facade of a 'harmonious society' and a much more checkered reality will inevitably lead to greater social volatility." Bequelin points to a 2010 Tsinghua University study that says China's budget for internal security (more than $78 billion) is now as high as the country's defense spending.
  • Also at FP, Eurasia Group Asia analyst Henry Hoyle argues that the events in Egypt and elsewhere will lead to "some internal deliberation in Beijing about how quickly disaffected, educated youth can use the Internet to bring even powerful autocracies to the precipice."
  • Reuters' Chris Buckley offers key political risks to watch in China, including rising food and housing prices, and that while so far the government seems to be succeeding in sustaining economic growth while introducing policies to stabilize prices, "keeping the balance right is tricky, and missteps could bring a backlash from markets and the public."
  • The Wall Street Journal's Josh Chin reports on a recent blog post that references a newspaper article about housing inflation published four months prior to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Chin notes that "while the Tiananmen Square protests have been remembered as a student-led struggle for democracy, they were arguably just as much about soaring prices." That the post (seen on the China Merchants Bank page on the Chinese microblog Sina Weibo) went up in the first place is a surprising happenstance, given that Tiananmen is heavily censored on China's web.
  • And two more videos from Sunday, the first in Beijing (via Associated Press) and the second in Shanghai (via bwjohnson):

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