Don't Dismiss a Jasmine Moment in China

The Chinese government is taking the possibility of pro-democracy protests seriously--and that's what activists want

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Over the last three momentous weeks or so of North African and Middle Eastern uprisings, the Western media based in China has largely stuck to a static message.

It can be summarized quickly as "China is not Egypt," which on reflection is not so helpful. The follow-on thoughts unfortunately don't go much further.

Typically, they hold that people would never rise up against their rulers in today's China, because of a long record of growth, because of what begins to sound like a cultural disinterest in politics, and because of the great efficiency of policing, among other reasons.

Lastly, and most problematically of all, there has been near unanimity in describing the response to the mysterious calls for Chinese people to emulate the peoples of the Middle East and protest in demand for change as a "failure."

Very often, these three sets of observations or claims have come as a trifecta of conventional wisdom.

In quick response, one might caution that few had predicted the Arab world's sudden convulsions, either. As China's own leaders seem to appreciate very well, authoritarian states are subject to change via brusque disequilibria. As someone has noted, things are stable yesterday, they are stable today, and then suddenly tomorrow, with little forewarning, they are not stable.

I would add that cultural claims that Chinese people and hence the society are fundamentally different from people elsewhere often veer into essentialism and are at best unreliable. David Brooks's recent column about Samuel Huntington is insightful in this regard.

To be clear, the argument here is not that China is flirting with a revolutionary moment. But this does not mean that this is not an unusually important moment, and a deeply revealing one as well.

At the simplest level, it is hard to understand how a call to protest can be declared a failure if it virtually causes a nation's entire security apparatus to come out in force and to take extraordinary measures of one kind after another, as has happened in China.

Ever the great builder of walls, China responded to last week's call for protesters to gather at a McDonalds in central Beijing by erecting barriers around the fast food establishment and deploying sanitation workers to hose down the streets to shoo people away. Watching over the scene were large numbers of policemen, both uniformed and plain-clothed, who didn't hesitate to use muscle to bundle away suspected foreign correspondents, many of whom were then subjected to interrogations on camera.

In the week since, during the run up to the third successive weekend where the word "Jasmine" has been used as a call to protest in China, dozens of foreign correspondents have received phone calls or visits from state security agents who have warned them about reporting on such sensitive matters and made dark hints about visa renewals down the road should they fail to take the advice.

The extraordinary measures continued last weekend, with an even bigger deployment of police in central Beijing who cordoned off areas of the city, stopped suspicious looking foreigners (which basically meant adult, non-Asian foreigners) for questioning and to turn them away, and interrupted subways service to a part of the city where students are heavily concentrated, for fear that they might congregate or protest.

And finally, according to the Associate Press, foreign journalists were told that new rules now apply to the exercise of their profession. Special prior permission is now needed for them to conduct any newsgathering in central Beijing.

There have been any number of other special policing measures, many of them involving increasingly radical intervention by censors on the Internet, rendering it slow or difficult to access a multitude of websites, especially foreign ones, reportedly interfering with Gmail, and of course blocking access to any number of words deemed dangerous, beginning of course with Jasmine. Someone wrote me from Shanghai on Sunday to say that talking about the speed and censorship of the Internet has become as regular a feature of daily chitchat there, and presumably elsewhere in China, as the weather.

On reflection, this might be a good time to take the Chinese authorities at face value. By their actions, they have all but declared this Jasmine moment to be of tremendous importance. By the same token, this is a good time to reconsider the hasty verdict of failure that many attached to this phantom movement.

A baseline objective of peaceful protesters everywhere is to call out their oppressors, to cause them to show their true colors, and to induce overreaction. By these standards at very little cost, whoever is behind the calls for Chinese to "stroll" in designated areas in cities around the country every weekend in silent protest has registered a rousing asymmetric success.

Seen from this perspective, the oft-cited metric of low to no turnout of identifiable demonstrators is beside the point. In a society where information is so tightly controlled, creating a spectacle, whether of huge numbers of security forces deployed in popular shopping zones on weekends, or of foreigners being stopped and interrogated, or even the virtual spectacle of sudden, large-scale Internet dysfunction, will get a lot of Chinese people asking the question: what in the world is going on here? This amounts, in other words, to spreading the word.

Dutifully turning out to rubberneck weekend strollers has diminishing returns. But one of the most interesting questions a reporter in China today could ask has been asked by surprisingly few in the press corps: what do ordinary people, not the "experts" or the privileged groups such as college students, make of all this? More specifically, what do they think the Party-State is so afraid of, and what does this fear tell us about their nation?

China has achieved extraordinary things over the last three decades, but the events of the last three weeks have revealed its system to be brittle and perhaps even endowed with clay feet. An unstoppable incipient superpower narrative has taken hold in many quarters outside of the country (a narrative interestingly often disclaimed by ordinary Chinese, who know their society's weaknesses first hand). In its spooked response to Jasmine, the Party-State, still scared of words, of anniversaries, and finally of flowers, may have reminded the world that it hasn't traveled quite the distance many have assumed.

Photo by David Gray/Reuters