After Protests, Beijing Cracks Down

By James Fallows

By Jeremiah Jenne

BEIJING, China -- Last Sunday's planned protests were something of a bust but that hasn't stopped activists from posting another series of anonymous letters on the US-based Chinese language website Boxun urging Chinese citizens to take to the streets this weekend. The new statement is even more ambitious in scope, listing demonstration sites in 23 cities around China and inviting people to take part if only "to stroll, watch, or even just pretend to pass by. As long as you are present, the authoritarian government will be shaking with fear."

Despite last weekend passing more or less without incident, China's security forces are on high alert.  Internet speed -- never one of China's strong points -- is even more hit or miss than usual.  The social networking site LinkedIn briefly joined Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube when it was temporarily blocked earlier this week, though I was able to access it without a VPN just a little while ago.

Other Internet users have reported problems with their VPNs, setting off a mini-panic among businesses and residents who rely on them to access overseas sites.  

There's even been some talk that government concerns could mean problems ahead for China's most used microblogging site Sina Weibo, though industry analysts (and Sina) insist that's not likely to happen.  Sina Weibo is however currently blocking searches for sensitive terms including "Wangfujing" (the designated protest site in Beijing), "Jon Huntsman," "Hilary Clinton," and, of course, "Jasmine."

This evening, several foreign correspondents said they were called in to "Have some tea and a chat" with the Public Security Bureau.  One Beijing-based journalist reported on Twitter that he had been told that "In order to interview anyone in Beijing, you must adhere to relevant national law and apply for and obtain consent from the individual or institution being interviewed."

Even more ominously, several activists have reportedly been detained this week while others have simply disappeared as security officials threatened to charge anybody who re-posts information about the Jasmine Revolution with "incitement to subversion of state power," the same crime for which Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence.

The security presence in Beijing has definitely been stepped up over the past few days both as a response to the protests and also as part of the preparations for next month's Party Congress.  This week we had the return of the "Old Auntie Brigade," elderly public security volunteers with matching red armbands stationed on sidewalks and street corners and reporting back to the local neighborhood committees.

(On some level it's a brilliant strategy.  No matter if you grew up in small town or a big city, there was always that group of older women -- and sometimes men -- who would spend their days watching people come and go and gossiping about the business of their neighbors. The only difference here is that the government took the obvious step of deputizing them.)

I expect that the more intimidating branches of the state security apparatus will be out in force this weekend, especially in the area around Wangfujing and in and around Tiananmen Square, and it appears that the Beijing Municipal Government is willing to go to Kafka-esque lengths to maintain a protest-free capital.  This afternoon, Tom Lasseter of McClatchy News Services and French journalist Jordan Pouille posted pictures on their blogs showing the section of Wangfujing in front of the McDonald's where last weekend's "protest" now with a long blue fence obstructing access and signs claiming "road repairs."

Subtle.

China's state media has had something of a tough time responding to the situation.  This week saw several forceful -- if not always coherent -- English language op-ed pieces, with one on Friday dismissing last Sunday's protest as "performance art" and warning readers that "history's dustbin is always littered with those who aspire for China's collapse."

The Chinese-language media has had to be more oblique, and unlike the English-language publications has tried to avoid using the term "Jasmine Revolution" in connection with China. Nevertheless, they still have featured a steady stream of editorials emphasizing the need for social stability and lambasting unspecified "meddlesome" foreign agitators.

Whether this weekend will new protests is doubtful.  The government has made it clear that it is not playing around and I get the sense that even if gatherings do occur, the chances of any actual protesting beyond "strolling and watching" seem remote.

If I had to bet, I'm guessing we'll see a repeat of last Sunday: A lot of police, a lot of journalists, and a few curious onlookers, but not too much in the way of actual participants.    

We'll see.

Jeremiah Jenne is a PhD candidate in Chinese history, living and working in Beijing. He is the author of the blog Jottings from the Granite Studio.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/02/after-protests-beijing-cracks-down/71704/