Earlier this year, when countries such as Egypt and Tunisia witnessed popular anti-government demonstrations, there were calls for a similar ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China. Several months on, though, and the chances of a revolution appear to have evaporated. Why?
At the end of February, the first of the so-called jasmine rallies took place in front of a fast food restaurant on the bustling street of Wangfujing in Beijing. I was on the scene then, and saw several hundred people gathered in the area. However, no one seemed to know what to do next. Some were cracking jokes, while others just looked around helplessly. Some people wondered if a celebrity would make an appearance.
The scene made it clear to me that few people in China really understood what exactly the talk of revolution really meant or entailed. Most of those that gathered were passers-by who were just curious about what was going on, which in turn attracted more onlookers. This first jasmine gathering was the biggest, and the gatherings quickly petered out after that.
Back then, I registered on one of the blogs calling for rallies in China, and found that more than anything, the demand for revolution was mostly meant as a wake-up call to the public, to encourage them to openly express concern over issues like corruption, social welfare and inflation. The organizers were hoping to make it a weekly affair, to make people pay attention to their rights and gradually change things through democratic means.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, China isn’t the same as Egypt and Tunisia. China lacks an organized and official opposition, the army is the Communist Party’s army, not the nation’s. China’s economic development has improved the lives of many, and most people just seem to want stability. All this means that it was inevitable that the prospects of a Jasmine revolution were bound to recede.
There are a number of reasons why this was bound to happen.
First, the external stimuli have faded. Calls for a jasmine revolution appeared when Tunisia and Egypt were engulfed by unrest, and there was 24/7 global media coverage of events. But these two countries have largely disappeared from the daily headlines – the media has been more interested in the conflict in Libya and the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. As international discussion over the jasmine revolution has disappeared, it’s natural that talk of such an event has faded here in China, too.
Another reason the calls for revolution ran out of steam in China was the tough response from the authorities. On weekends following the first rally, the authorities deployed people in ‘sensitive’ areas, while vehicles were barred from entering areas around the planned gathering sites. Foreign reporters were harassed, and restrictions were stepped up still further as part of preparations for the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary.
Third, the calls for a jasmine revolution never really captured the broader public’s attention. The Hong Kong media reported extensively on the developments, but the vast majority of ordinary Chinese saw no evidence of an uprising. The matter was little discussed by the Chinese media, meaning many just didn’t know about the gatherings. If no one knows, then no one can attend.
In addition, and especially since the Tiananmen Square crackdown, there just hasn’t been a culture of street politics. Even though the Chinese Constitution allows for street protests, most Chinese actually think taking to the streets is against the law. Meanwhile, students fear that if they took to the streets to protest, it would affect their chances of finding a job after graduation; workers worry they’ll be sacked.
This has meant that over the past 20 years, aside from anti-American and anti-Japanese demonstrations that the authorities have given tacit approval for, there have been no large-scale demonstrations in major cities.
One of my friends spoke for many Chinese when he said recently the main reason he doesn’t take to the streets, despite being aware of serious social injustices in China, is that he worries that it would adversely affect his future.
I read recently that the initiator of the Jasmine Rally calls has been targeted by Chinese diplomatic agencies in the United States and is being barred from returning to China. The person has said that despite this, there are still many other people working behind the scenes in China who are safe and well.
It’s hard to know whether to feel uplifted or depressed when I hear about this sort of development.