China’s authorities appear to have gone one better than metaphorically sweeping discontent under the rug—they’ve managed to literally sweep away the latest call to gather by the so-called Jasmine Rallies Organizers.
Sunday at 2 pm was supposed to see citizens gather at more than a dozen locations around the country following an open letter from activists that appeared on Boxun.com last week. Last Sunday’s gatherings likely proved to be something of an anti-climax for those who had hoped for a mass gathering as the authorities engaged in a show of force to pre-empt any problems.
And by the sounds of it, they erred even further on the side of caution yesterday, with multiple reports suggesting a very heavy police presence around one of the rally areas, Wangfujing, which is one of Beijing’s best known shopping streets.
According to sources on the ground there Sunday, the area was full of uniformed and plainclothes police (identifiable through their earpieces) and other security forces. In addition, I’ve heard that police were also dressed as street sweepers, with street cleaning trucks passing around the area regularly to disperse onlookers and potential participants. I’m told the seats by the window at McDonalds, which has been the focus of the planned gatherings the past two Sundays, were also occupied by plainclothes security.
Chinese ‘caution’ didn’t stop there. Several journalists appear to have been manhandled or detained—a Bloomberg journalist and news crews from German and Spanish TV, among others.
According to Bloomberg today:
‘At least five men in plain clothes, who appeared to be security personnel, punched and kicked the (Bloomberg) reporter at Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping street at 2:45 pm local time yesterday. They also took the video camera he was carrying and detained him in a roadside store.
‘Uniformed police arrived after the attack and escorted the journalist to a nearby station where he filed a report of the attack before seeking treatment for his injuries at a local hospital. Police returned the video camera while the reporter was at the station, saying a passerby had found it.’
One of the lessons I’d have thought from the unrest in Egypt is that it’s best not to get the international media’s back up by being too heavy-handed with them. I wouldn’t exactly describe the media (of which I’m obviously a part) as cheerleaders of the revolutions in Cairo and elsewhere. But when you make them part of the story by targeting them, then you add a whole new personal dimension to reporting that gets beamed around the world, and inspires even more determination to help locals circumvent restrictions on their ability to communicate (I have in mind the way Google worked to assist access to Twitter, which was seen by many as a useful rallying tool in Egypt).
In Shanghai, meanwhile, AP reported that police used whistles to try and harry any onlookers, although it added that about 200 people—considerably more than last week—still stayed around despite the intimidation.
In addition to a physical presence, it seems the authorities also took to social media to try to disrupt the organizers (as I write this, the Boxun website is down by the way. They’ve claimed previously that the site has come under attack from China—it’s perfectly plausible, although there’s no way of knowing for sure).
According to China Digital Times (whose website, curiously, is also down right now):
‘The Chinese state machine has gone into overdrive to prevent this imagined uprising. Among other visible measures such as arresting activists, censoring the Chinese Internet, and sending police to every designated “protest” site, Chinese Twitter users have noticed that suddenly a new group of Chinese Twitter accounts opened and became active during the last week’.
According to CDT, which has a sampling of Tweets on its site, a number of these new accounts appear to have forged the names of activists, and have also included photos of dissidents. It says Chinese Twitter users have been tracing these Tweets, and found that many of them are pro-government, sounding much like the kind of statements issued by the ‘50 Cent Party’—the nickname given to Internet commenters on the Chinese government payroll.
According to the Jasmine Rallies Organizers, the protests spread to 100 cities. It’s hard to tell whether this is hyperbole or if there really is something significant developing here. One of the problems for these rallies at the moment is that there is as yet no clear figure, group or opposition party to co-ordinate these efforts. To a certain extent this applied to Egypt—there were opposition parties and leaders to rally behind, but protesters didn’t really seem to coalesce around any one person. The difference there, though, is that while there was no leader, protesters were able to create a focal point of resistance in Tahrir Square, something that the authorities in China appear determined not to allow.
All this means that what happens this Sunday will be particularly interesting. The first call to rally last Sunday put the idea out there and generated coverage. This week, there certainly appears to have been more interest, but the authorities have used a correspondingly firmer hand. So what happens this coming Sunday could give a much clearer indication of whether there’s any real life in this particular movement. If people seeing this tougher crackdown are deterred, for now, from getting involved, this coming Sunday could see interest quickly fade. But if despite the show of force the numbers gathering continue to grow, then the government might start to feel a little concerned.