Don’t Look for Jasmine in China

Either tea or revolution

If you're looking for good jasmine tea on Baidu, China's biggest search
engine, you may be in for a surprise. As soon as you type in "good
jasmine tea," Baidu flashes a message: "In accordance with relevant
laws, regulations and policies, part of the search results are not
shown."

It's not that the government discourages the tea, but the
word "jasmine" has become toxic – even a song about the beautiful
jasmine flower sung by Kenyan students along with President Hu Jintao is
censored.

All this stems from the "Jasmine Revolution," which
began in Tunisia last December, leapt to Egypt and now spreads across
North Africa and the Middle East. Beijing finds the fall of
authoritarian governments in distant Africa embarrassing, recalling
scenes of student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, crushed by
the Chinese military.

Even worse, there are attempts to launch
"jasmine rallies" in China itself, although the organizers, who are
anonymous and send messages online, have little to show for their
efforts after three weeks. This may well be because China is more
economically secure than the countries in the Arab world that are
experiencing unrest. After all, it has gone through more than 30 years
of rapid economic growth in which hundreds of millions of people have
been lifted from poverty and people's lives have improved dramatically.

In
fact, a 22-nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey made public last June
showed that while most people were unhappy with the direction of their
country, China was an exception. "Only in China," the survey reported,
"does an overwhelming portion of the population (87 percent) express
satisfaction with national conditions."

So, on the face of it at least, China does not seem ripe for a Jasmine Revolution.

Those
organizing "jasmine rallies" in China evidently think otherwise. In an
open letter published on overseas website Boxun.com, the organizers
called on people to gather every Sunday at 2 pm to demand an independent
judiciary, a government supervised by the people and an end to
corruption.

On February 20, the first Sunday, it was difficult to
tell protesters from ordinary shoppers since the designated sites in
Beijing and Shanghai are busy shopping areas, but the police were out in
force, overwhelming foreign journalists out to cover the event, or
non-event as it turned out to be. Before that day, the police had
preempted any protest by rounding up more than 100 activists. Despite no
signs of protest outside MacDonald's on the busy Wangfujing shopping
street, designated as the site for a rally in Beijing, police and
security agents tried to stop the journalists from reporting.

Since
the first protest was pretty much of a fizzle, one might have assumed
that the Chinese authorities would relax. But the next Sunday there was
an even bigger turnout of police and security agents who declared war on
foreign journalists.

In one case, the Wall Street Journal
reported, a Bloomberg television journalist was grabbed by five
plainclothes officers, "dragged along the ground by his leg, punched in
the head and beaten with a broomstick." BBC footage showed plainclothes
men roughing up the reporter and his colleague, throwing them into a
van.

The police removed foreign news staff from the Associated
Press, the BBC, Voice of American, German state broadcasters ARD and
ZDF, and others from the scene.

The New York Times reported that
at least half a dozen journalists and photographers were visited in
their homes, repeatedly warned not to cause trouble or, as one officer
put it, try to "topple the party."

Reporting rules were
tightened. "No reporting" zones were established in Shanghai and
Beijing. The Los Angeles Times reported that journalists were privately
told that they could be expelled if caught reporting on protests without
permission.

These moves constitute a big step backwards from the
more moderate regulations for foreign correspondents introduced before
the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which are theoretically still in force.
The police ferocity was in sharp contrast to the behavior of protesters,
told by rally organizers to participate by "strolling, watching or
pretending to pass by" without shouting slogans or displaying placards.

The
organizers, who remain anonymous, originally stipulated 13 cities for
the rallies, which they quickly raised to 27 cities and, on March 6,
claimed that their movement had spread to more than 100 cities. Since
the only cities with a substantial presence of foreign journalists are
Beijing and Shanghai, it's impossible to verify such claims.

Moreover,
because posts are typically immediately deleted on online message
boards and forums within China, it's likely that few people in the
country actually know about the call for defiance of the Communist
authorities.

On March 6, the third Sunday, Beijing was quiet. But
uniformed and plainclothes policemen were out in force in Wangfujing,
Xidan and other crowded commercial areas.
Mobile phone service was shut down in parts of the city during the three Sundays.

The
Chinese leadership evidently feels confronted with a dilemma: If they
allow "strolling" to take place unhindered, then such gatherings will
likely expand over time. If they clamp down hard, they may be seen as an
illegitimate government able to stay in power only through force.

Clearly, China decided to crack down hard early so that a feeble movement does not gain strength.

In
fact, budget figures disclosed on Saturday during the annual session of
the National People's Congress showed a sharp increase in funding for
domestic security. For the first time, such expenditures exceed the
amount spent on national defense.

Total budgeted spending for
police, state security, armed civil militia, courts and jails amounted
to 624 billion yuan, or US$95 billion, compared to 601.1 billion yuan,
or $91.5 billion, for defense. Apparently, the government sees the
domestic threat as being graver than any external threat despite the
findings of the Pew Survey.

In fact, the government admits that
people are unhappy. The China Daily, the official English-language
daily, reported last week that a survey conducted by Gallup World Poll
ranked China 125th among 155 countries when measuring people's overall
satisfaction with their lives. The newspaper pointed out that "only 6
percent of Chinese people see themselves as happy" even though 36
percent of respondents said their lives had improved during the past
five years.

Moreover, according to the government's own
statistics, unrest is widespread with the number of "mass incidents"
rising in recent years and may now exceed 100,000 a year.

By all
accounts, most people still have confidence in the central government,
with which they rarely come into contact. But many have little
confidence in officials at the local level, the people who seize their
land, evict them from their homes to make deals with land developers and
lock them up if they lodge petitions.

The way to respond to
public dissatisfaction is to deal with legitimate grievances. Reacting
in such a disproportionate manner to what's at most a mild form of civil
protest exposes a government that does not enjoy the trust of its
people. And browbeating – actually beating – foreign reporters will
result in that message being magnified rather than muffled.

Political
stability maintained through coercive means may well result in
political instability. China's leaders should recall the saying of their
founding father, Mao Zedong, "Where there is oppression there is
resistance."

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong–based journalist.
This is reprinted with the permission of the Yale Center for the Study
of Globalization

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