BEIJING, China -- Overseas organizers once again called for demonstrations in China over the weekend, but as was the case last Sunday, few if any protesters in Beijing heeded the call, leaving only a massive security presence that quickly turned its attention on foreign journalists there to cover the planned protest. The Beijing Municipal Government also unveiled its latest secret weapon against unrest: a fleet of street cleaning vehicles* which rolled down Wangfujing, the designated protest site in central Beijing, hosing down the pavement and clearing the main avenue before parking in front of the local KFC.
(The KFC had been rumored to be an alternative protest site, as the original venue, a McDonald's located about 100 yards away, was cordoned off on Friday by blue construction fencing and "road repair" signs.)
While effective, the Chinese government didn't leave crowd control solely in the hands of the Department of Public Works. I was there for an hour and I haven't seen that many police in one place since the Olympics in 2008.
Most of the cops seemed alternately bored and annoyed, and with little else to do they started clashing with the other group well-represented this afternoon: the foreign press corps.
One foreign journalist was assaulted by plainclothes officers and there were numerous smaller scuffles. This evening, French journalist Jordan Pouille reported on twitter that he had been arrested, and while at the station saw at least seven other journalists who had also been taken into custody.
Many correspondents were shadowed by "their own dedicated followers" throughout the afternoon.
There were other testy standoffs as police asked random foreigners for "their papers," physically restrained people from entering or leaving the area in front of the KFC and McDonald's, and temporarily barricaded the south entrance to the street.
I personally witnessed three plain clothes officers roughly shoving a female foreign correspondent for about 10-15 yards. Photographers and TV crews were particularly at risk, as the site of a camera drew an immediate and harsh response from the police.
If there were any people actually planning to protest, they didn't carry through on it and frankly I can understand why: A person would have lasted longer lathering up with baby seal blubber and trying to French kiss a great white shark than they would have holding up a sign in Central Beijing this afternoon.
But that doesn't mean the government isn't concerned.
Today's response was larger, better organized, and better coordinated than last Sunday. Multiple levels of state security were involved, from local public safety volunteers to police dogs, plainclothes agents, and trucks of SWAT/riot control parked a few blocks away just in case. Even China Mobile, the state-owned telecommunications company which operates the largest mobile network in the country, was involved. GPRS/3G Internet access was unavailable in a two-block radius around Wangfujing this afternoon, although normal mobile phone and messaging services were unaffected.
If anything today, it was that the government that tipped its hand. There were no protests. So I'm left to wonder: Without the 300 or so police patrolling two city blocks and the week-long harassment of activists, dissidents, and foreign journalists - where's the story here? Rather, this has become the latest in a long line of incidents in which the government overreacted at the possibility of negative news coming out of China only to have the official response become the story.
As I wrote last week, no matter how much discontent continues to grow in China, the lack of a coherent opposition and the threat of a swift and brutal reprisal by the state against any form of organized dissent, means that there is little chance of North African-style mass demonstrations happening in Beijing, at least for the foreseeable future.
In a live web-chat scheduled -- coincidentally enough -- for Sunday morning, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao told netizens, "The purpose of our economic development is to meet the people's growing material and cultural needs, and make the lives of commoners better and better."
In another piece I wrote this week comparing the end of the Qing Dynasty with the situation today, I argued that despite all the differences, the Chinese Communist Party faces a dilemma that would have been familiar to the princes of the Qing court: The knowledge that there are serious systemic problems that can only be solved by making hard choices which may, one day, ultimately erode their monopoly on power.
Will the Party fulfill Wen's promise, or will it have to resort to even larger displays of force in the future to maintain social stability?
Photographs courtesy of Tom Lasseter, Beijing Correspondent, McClatchy Newspapers. Used with permission.
*Actually this is an upgrade in counter-insurgency technology.
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.