BEIJING, China – China left little question on Sunday about how it would react to the sort of protests that have swept through the Mideast and North Africa: It sent out vast forces of police that far outnumbered the small smatterings of protesters in Beijing and Shanghai.
On Saturday, Chinese micro-blogging sites and Twitter users began spreading a call for demonstrations at 2 p.m. on Sunday, organizing China’s own "Jasmine Revolution" on the heels of a wave of mass unrest that has felled the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia.
But China’s rulers, nearly 22 years since quashing the massive Tiananmen movement, are well-practiced in police control of messages, crowds and unwanted displays of discontent. Although the country sees tens of thousands of organic protests each year – over everything from pollution to illegal land seizures – rarely does one grow large or out-of-hand.
About a thousand people gathered in front of a McDonald’s at central Beijing Wangfujing shopping district (just down the street from Tiananmen Square) on Sunday just after 2 p.m., apparently ready to protest. They were easily and quickly outnumbered by hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police surrounding and patrolling the district. Throngs of confused shoppers, seeing TV crews and foreign journalists, craned in for a better look at the scene.
“Is there some kind of performance going on?” one confused young man asked.
In fact it did seem almost like performance art, and several commentators have raised the question whether the whole thing was a skit. But at the same time, several prominent rights attorneys went missing over the weekend and China ratcheted up its filters on the internet and media. Certain terms (including “jasmine”) were blocked from micro-blogging sites, while virtual private networks, used to circumvent the Great Firewall to access blocked sites such as Twitter, experienced ongoing outages and disruptions.
Mobile phone text messages and web postings sent around the country urged protesters in 13 cities to stand and voice dissent over inflation, housing prices and unemployment. At Beijing’s Wangfujing gathering, there appeared to be no coordinated chanting. By 4 p.m. all but the regular Sunday shoppers and a few dozen police had dispersed and some arrests were reported. In Shanghai, wire reports say a similar scene played out in front of a local Starbuck’s.
China’s official media, which has censored much coverage of protests in Egypt and elsewhere, reiterated on Monday the Communist Party’s hard line against dissent. State-run newspapers quoted Zhou Yongkang, the party’s main public security official, as calling for new ways to head off unrest before it boils over. Zhou, quoted in several newspapers as speaking to a meeting of party officials, said officials should, "strive to defuse conflicts and disputes while they are still embryonic.”
In an editorial headlined “Reading too much into a Jasmine bunch,” the English version of the hard-line Global Times newspaper dismissed the protesters “like beggars in the streets – they never fade away, while the rest of the country moves forward.”
“China's government holds the support of the majority of society,” the newspaper asserted. “Some people do complain – occasionally because they enjoy the thrill of standing up to authority and showing off their bravado – but Chinese society as a whole cannot be represented by these agitated few. There is no collective will for revolution in China.”