China’s fledgling Jasmine Revolution was barely more than a whisper on Twitter when Chinese authorities moved into action, detaining a number of prominent rights lawyers, activists, and netizens in an effort to nip the “revolution” in the bud.1
On Sunday, February 20, 2011, the first day of the “revolution,” a phalanx of uniformed and plain clothes police, volunteers, and rented security forces, were on hand outside the McDonald’s restaurant on Beijing’s busy Wangfujing Street, with police vehicles lining all the side streets. It was difficult to tell the demonstrators from the shoppers who daily crowd the busy street — certainly no one was heard to say, “We want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness,” the slogan that the anonymous organizers told people to shout.2 It’s believed that few silent protestors actually arrived on Wangfujing Street that day, and just three people were believed to have been taken away by the police.3
It was clearly the over-reaction of the police, however, that gave teeth to what would likely have been a non-event. As soon as the police arrived, a crowd of curious shoppers gathered, craning their necks to see what the fuss was all about.
Some observers were quick to call the revolution a failure, arguing that there appeared to have been more journalists and police on the street than actual demonstrators. But these people may have missed the whole point of the exercise. There was never a hope that a large number of protesters would turn up on the streets shouting and holding banners — that would have been too risky in the face of the Chinese government’s overwhelming ability to use brutal force against its own people.
However, the revolution was far from being a failure — it was brilliant. The organizers’ only goal was to create havoc among the authorities, which they did. On February 22, the organizers issued a statement calling for rallies every Sunday hence: “We invite every participant to stroll, watch, or even just pretend to pass by. As long as you are present, the authoritarian government will be shaking with fear.” In the following weeks, Chinese police throughout the country were forced to mobilize large numbers of security against a phantom movement, which made them look increasingly ridiculous and inept.
Not sure who was pulling the strings behind the anonymous announcements, the authorities began to strike out blindly. They tightened their already tight stranglehold over the Internet, shutting down several Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that are used by people in China to climb over the Great Firewall. On February 24, 2011, the professional social networking site LinkedIn joined Twitter and Facebook in being blocked by China’s cyber cops. The authorities even shut down mobile services and 3G services in parts of Beijing on Sundays, creating problems for local citizens who did not even know what was going on.
Some 15 Chinese lawyers were “disappeared,” in February and March, a term that refers to illegal police abductions, an increasingly popular police strategy. According to informed sources, some were brutally tortured. And information circulated on Twitter indicates that the police also arrested half a dozen Chinese Twitter users — including some who were said to be opposed to the rallies. Another 100 people were placed under house arrest or had their movement restricted.
The growing official frustration was in plain sight on Sunday, February 27, when at least 16 foreign journalists who were present in the Wangfujing Street shopping area, the designated rally location in Beijing, were beaten up and manhandled, including a reporter from Bloomberg TV, who was knocked down and dragged into an alley by plainclothes police who punched and kicked him in the face.4 Several other journalists were detained. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs then announced a rule that journalists would have to apply for permission to do reporting in the bustling Wangfujing Street shopping area, which was seen as a big step backward from the relaxation of some of the restrictions on foreign journalists since the 2008 Olympics.5
Officials stepped up the pressure on the international media. Journalists were called in to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and police stations and were warned not to report on the Jasmine Revolution, a term borrowed from the Tunisian revolt, with some being told their visas would possibly be revoked.6 In some cases, the police went to reporters’ homes to threaten them, and in others they called the reporters’ landlords to see if they had properly registered their living quarters.
Despite the drastic steps, and the blockage of the movement’s web site, the organizers expanded to various social media such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter and increased the original 13 protest cities to 27. They soon claimed that the movement had spread to more than 100 cities — a claim that is hard to prove or disprove.
The government clearly faced a dilemma. If it didn’t crack down on these gatherings, it risked allowing the Jasmine Revolution to blossom into a more serious movement. But if it took drastic steps, it risked looking insecure and fueling further public resentment. China’s Jasmine Revolution has resulted in a flurry of analysis around the world arguing that China is different than Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and that there will be no revolution here. The conventional wisdom is that the Communist Party has lifted millions of grateful Chinese out of poverty, and thus the country is not ripe for revolution.
But this has become a cliché that is being blindly repeated over and over again by people who make the claim without even thinking.
Yes, millions have been lifted out of poverty. However, Party corruption, greed, and incompetence are throwing millions more Chinese people back into poverty and despair. Chinese citizens today face environmental disasters, health crises, safety scandals, unemployment, social injustices, and other problems on a major scale.
The Party has long benefited from the widespread belief that many problems lay solely at the grass roots level, and that the central authorities have the people’s best interests at heart, but are often unaware of the abuses by local leaders. It’s uncertain, however, how much longer the Communist Party will be able to ride the coattails of this increasingly thin lie.
In my experience in reporting on serious issues in China over the past two decades, in almost every case the Party at various levels of government is either directly or indirectly responsible, and the central authorities either are ignorant of the problem, ignore it, or make great efforts to cover it up.
In 2009, I reported on Ling Ling,7 a 14-year-old girl who had contracted AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion from a local hospital in Henan Province when she was just 18 months old. The hospital tried to cover up its responsibility — and the girl’s actual illness — until a big hospital in another province confirmed that the girl had AIDS and Hepatitis C. By that time, she was near death. Yet the family was blocked by the central government from seeking compensation through the local courts. The official argument was that so many people were infected by the illicit blood collection scandal in the mid-1990s, resulting from unscrupulous blood collection businesses operated by local government officials and the military, that the hospitals were simply unable to bear the economic burden.
When Ling Ling’s mother heard about free pediatric AIDS medications at the Ditan Hospital in Beijing, provided by the Clinton Foundation, local Henan officials attempted to stop her from going there, afraid the negative publicity would hurt foreign investment. The mother insisted on going, a daring Beijing reporter wrote about the family’s plight, and local officials backed down. “When you face AIDS, you have to be strong,” Ling Ling’s mother told me. “If I had not come to Ditan Hospital, my daughter would not be here today.”
Unfortunately, countless others in Henan, many of whom do not even know they have contracted AIDS, referring to their ailment as the “no name fever,” are unable to get even basic treatment and are awaiting a painful death.
Later that year, I traveled back to Henan Province, this time with nine farmers who were searching for their missing sons, believed kidnapped by Fagin-like8 brick kiln owners, who held the young men as slaves, offering them barely enough food to survive and no salaries.9 For the most part, the police ignored the brick kilns. The farmer who organized a vigilante group told me they rescued no less than 100 young men from illegal brick kilns, known as “Black Kilns,” taking action after police refused to do anything.
“If it was their own kids who were missing, would the police be so uncaring?” asked Yuan Cheng, the father of a 15-year-old boy who was missing. He told me he suspected that in some areas the police took bribes from kiln owners. Media reports support his claim; others suggest that in many areas, local officials protect the operators of Black Kilns, making it difficult for the police to act even if they wanted to. After roaming the countryside for several days, visiting more than a dozen Black Kilns, we returned to a small rural town. About a dozen police immediately surrounded us with video cameras. The farmers barely managed to get away, and a Chinese reporter and I were both harassed.
In the fall of 2010, I visited mining and factory towns in various parts of China where asbestos was being mined and produced. Despite it being well-known around the world that asbestos is a highly toxic material that kills people, miners, workers, and consumers around China remain clueless about the danger. In several of the places I visited, workers wore inadequate, flimsy, cotton face-masks, and, in some instances, no masks at all.
People are ignorant because the government clamps down on public discussion of the asbestos problem, said to kill between 15,000–40,000 people a year, because it wants to protect an industry that employs 2 million people and brings in export dollars. Around a dozen government officials and scientists refused requests for interviews, afraid they would get into trouble for speaking about the material that is poised to create a major health crisis — it takes as many as 30-40 years after exposure to asbestos for fatal lung diseases caused by the exposure to manifest themselves, and by that time, the worker would not connect his illness with his exposure to asbestos, but assume that his illness is the result of smoking or pollution.10
In February this year, I traveled to a small villagein Hunan Province. Virtually the entire population of 1,800 people has high levels of cadmium in their bodies, and dozens have passed away, the result of a local factory that pumped heavy metals waste into local fields that seeped into the food chain — vegetables and rice. Villagers say the local environmental officials and party bosses colluded with the factory owner and gangs, apparently approving the heavily-polluting electro-plating factory, despite the lack of waste control equipment. Villagers were afraid to speak to me because they had been threatened by party officials and gangs. The parents of a six-year-old girl who died defied the threats to speak to me. “I feel like I let my daughter down,” said her father, fighting back tears. At home his 70-year-old mother threw herself on the ground, crying bitterly after showing me a photograph of the little girl. Another young villager, who was well educated, agreed to talk with me about the problem, but only in a private room in a tea house in the local town. He too was afraid to speak out.
I then traveled to about a dozen villages around Guangdong Province, where the problem is affecting people across the province. Rivers in all of the villages were seriously polluted, the water turning a thick and sticky black, ink blue, milky white or a sickly green. In each place I was told that local factories were freely pouring seriously polluted waste water into the environment.
In case after case, we see the Party leadership either siding with local corrupt officials or helping them to cover up their crimes, feeding a growing bitter resentment. Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and the other top leaders are not ignorant about these problems. They know that a single spark can start a prairie fire, to borrow from Mao Zedong. A government think-tank has revealed that there have been some 90,000 “mass incidents” of public unrest in China every year since
2007, and the numbers are rising.11 And this explains why, despite its bluster, the Communist Party is quite afraid of the Jasmine Revolution.
The leadership is incapable of implementing even the most basic reforms, unwilling to give up an ounce of its authority and power. The Party’s knee-jerk reaction to any challenge is to use force to smother a problem rather than solve it.
When the party recently convened a secret meeting to discuss rising social problems, according to respected China watcher Perry Link, the conclusion was not to find a solution to the problems. Instead, Party leaders called for more controls on the social media, including micro-blogs, and even shutting down parts of the Internet.12
Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan wrote on her blog after a recent meeting with police officers that “it was clear to me that this anonymous group calling for Jasmine Revolution protests in China is, in its own way, winning. So far, they’ve shown themselves to be nothing but a few people with a computer and a website. Yet, they have managed to turn China’s security apparatus topsy-turvy.”13
Oddly enough, by reacting with such determination against the fledgling revolution, the government has actually given it a respect and credibility that it otherwise might not have enjoyed. The Jasmine Revolution is exposing some serious chinks in the Party’s armor, which was once believed to be invincible.
For the first time, I’m hearing educated Chinese — albeit a very small number — talk about their plans for after the fall of Communism. I myself feel such talk is extremely premature, and I worry about what will happen if the regime does collapse. There’s no experienced body of people equipped to take over the reins of government — the Communist Party having been sure to prevent the formation of even a loyal opposition. The collapse of the Party could throw China into chaos.
One thing is certain, however. The Party no longer appears invincible.
3. Anita Chang, “China Tries to Stamp Out ‘Jasmine Revolution’,” Associated Press, February 20, 2011, https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/topstories/2011-02-20-2570282820_x.htm. ^
4. Damian Grammaticas, “Calls for Protests in China Met with Brutality,” British Broadcasting Corporation, February 27, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12593328. ^
6. Peter Ford, “Report on China’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’? Not If You Want Your Visa,” The Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2011/0303/Report-on-China-s-Jasmine-Revolution-Not-if-you-want-your-visa. ^
7. Paul Mooney, “A People Ignored,” South China Morning Post, May 21, 2009, http://pjmooney.squarespace.com/new-article-social-issues-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1. ^
8. Fagin is a character in Charles Dickens classic novel Oliver Twist. He is the merciless leader of a band of pickpockets. ^
9. Paul Mooney, “Lost Boys,” South China Morning Post, September 27, 2009, https://pjmooney.squarespace.com/awards-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1. ^
10. Paul Mooney, “Killer At Large,” South China Morning Post, November 14, 2010, http://pjmooney.squarespace.com/new-article-social-issues-1-1. ^
11. Chris Hogg, “China’s Security Tsar Warns over ‘Jasmine Revolution’,” British Broadcasting Corporation, February 21, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12522856. ^
12. Perry Link, “The Secret Politburo Meeting behind China’s New Democracy Crackdown,” New York Review of Books, February 20, 2011, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/feb/20/secret-politburo-meeting-behind-chinas-crackdown. ^
13. Melissa Chan, “In China, Is the Revolution Being Won?,” Al Jazeera, March 3, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/asia/2011/03/7151.html. ^