'A Delicate Time'

James Fallows and Damien Ma wonder whether new leadership will change China's political atmosphere

Also see:
Arab Spring, Chinese Winter by James Fallows
The Atlantic, September 2011

On Sunday afternoon, February 20, while Muammar Qaddafi’s troops were shooting into unarmed crowds in Benghazi, a handful of Chinese staged the first of a projected series of weekly “Jasmine” protests designed to extend the spirit of the Arab Spring protests to several major Chinese cities. The demonstration in Beijing was held in front of a McDonald’s restaurant at the Wangfujing intersection, not far from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. That day, several dozen demonstrators were matched by about the same number of foreign reporters, plus large numbers of passersby and onlookers (Wangfujing on a weekend is one of Beijing’s most jammed areas) and larger groups of uniformed and plainclothes police.

Within two days, the street outside the Wangfujing McDonald’s had been almost entirely blocked by out-of-nowhere “street repair” construction hoardings. The following Sunday, when the next Jasmine march was supposed to take place, almost no demonstrators appeared in Wangfujing. Instead there were large numbers of foreign reporters and tourists, and countless hundreds of security forces. Jasmine demonstrators in Shanghai mustered a larger showing that day, but that turned out to be a high-water mark. By late February, the Jasmine “movement” was on its way to being decisively shut down.

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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