Chinese People Power: A Primer


While our eyes are glued on the collapsing Qaddafi regime, the authorities in China are getting jittery about a Jasmine Revolution of their own:

Skittish domestic security officials responded with a mass show of force across China on Sunday after anonymous calls for protesters to stage a Chinese "Jasmine Revolution" went out over social media and microblogging outlets.

Although there were no reports of large demonstrations, the outsize government response highlighted China's nervousness at a time of spreading unrest in the Middle East aimed at overthrowing authoritarian governments.

The words "Jasmine Revolution," borrowed from the successful Tunisian revolt, were blocked on sites similar to Twitter and on Internet search engines, while cellphone users were unable to send out text messages to multiple recipients. A heavy police presence was reported in several Chinese cities.

In recent days, more than a dozen lawyers and rights activists have been rounded up, and scores of dissidents have reportedly been placed under varying forms of house arrest. At least two lawyers are still missing, family members and human rights advocates said Sunday.

In Beijing, a huge crowd formed outside a McDonald's in the heart of the capital on Sunday after messages went out listing it as one of 13 protest sites across the country….By 2 p.m., the planned start of the protests, hundreds of police officers had swarmed the area, a major shopping district popular with tourists.

At one point, the police surrounded a young man who had placed a jasmine flower on a planter outside the McDonald's, but he was released after the clamor drew journalists and photographers.

The would-be rebellion's name may have been inspired by the Middle Eastern revolts, but its roots go deeper than that. Wildcat protests have been a force in Chinese life for a while now. As Gordon Chang pointed out in 2006, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations

irrevocably changed the People's Republic. By the end of the 1990's, Chinese society was turbulent once more as individual protests, both in the countryside and the city, began attracting tens of thousands of participants. In early 2002, two of them—one by oil workers in Daqing in the northeast and the other by factory hands in nearby Liaoyang—may have reached the 100,000 mark. In late 2004, in China's southwest, about 100,000 peasants protested the seizure without compensation of land to build a hydroelectric plant in Sichuan province.

Protests have not only become bigger in size; they are now more numerous. In 1994, there were 10,000 such "mass incidents"; by 2003 there were 58,000; in 2004 and 2005 there were 74,000 and 87,000 respectively. This is according to official statistics, which undoubtedly undercount. According to the legal activist Jerome Cohen, a truer figure for the last year may be 150,000.

Virtually every segment in society (except, of course, senior Communist leaders and wealthy entrepreneurs) is participating in these public demonstrations. Almost anything, whether or not it is a genuine grievance, can trigger a sit-in, demonstration, or riot against party officials, village bosses, tax collectors, factory owners, or township cadres.