Monday, February 28, 2011

China Demonstrations Fail

AN ATTEMPT by unidentified microblog users to whip up a “jasmine revolution” in China has produced little visible response so far except for police jitters and a revived official antagonism toward the foreign media. It has also created friction between China and America’s outgoing ambassador, Jon Huntsman, who was seen on February 20th near a McDonald’s outlet in Wangfujing, in downtown Beijing, where messages circulated on the internet had called on people to congregrate. (Mr Huntsman said it was a coincidence.)

The ambassador has now issued a statement strongly condemning the detention and harassment by police of several foreign journalists who tried to cover the response to another call for protest, this time on February 27th. One of the journalists was punched and kicked, by people who appeared to be plainclothes police, and then detained for several hours. Several reporters had their cameras and video equipment confiscated. A report by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (which has since been removed from the club's website) counts 16 news organisations whose staff were harassed by police: either assaulted, manhandled, deprived of their equipment or detained. Mr Huntsman called on the Chinese government to “hold the perpetrators accountable”.

Chinese officials have accused the foreign media of overreacting to the attempt at a protest; a handful of ordinary citizens did appear to respond to the call in Beijing and Shanghai, but only a handful. They were quickly taken away by police and were at all times outnumbered by journalists. But the police response suggests a kind of worry on the part of the officials: they seem to be profoundly concerned about the country’s vulnerability to large-scale upheaval. The massive security deployments on February 20th and 27th, and the accompanying detention and surveillance of dissidents, indicates they feared a real possibility of serious unrest. They pulled out all the stops to cow the government’s critics into silence.

In Beijing this has included measures directed at the foreign media that are reminiscent of the dark days that followed the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Todd Carrel, a reporter for ABC news, suffered serious and lasting injury at the hands of plainclothes thugs on the square in 1992, while covering the anniversary of the crackdown. In the buildup to last weekend, numerous foreign correspondents were given warnings by the police that they would need official clearance to report in either Wangfujing, ordinarily a busy shopping street, or Tiananmen. Although officials have often insisted on clearance to conduct journalistic activities on Tiananmen, the extension of such restrictions to Wangfujing was new.

In many cases the police insisted that journalists visit them at an office building to receive these warnings. One colleague was told that he had to turn up at the building on Sunday afternoon, just when the protest was due to happen. When he said this was not convenient, he was told there might be future difficulties with his visa if he did not comply.

The security in Wangfujing that afternoon was extraordinary. I walked up the length of the broad pedestrian street and saw as many plainclothesmen and uniformed police as I did shoppers. Two police officers stood at the ready with attack dogs. I saw one foreigner being escorted away by police and others being stopped to ask for their identity papers. Later, say reports, water was sprayed over the street in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to scatter anyone who might linger. Civilians in red armbands, a sort of unarmed militia who are often mobilised to assist police with major security operations, such as during Beijing's Olympic games in 2008, were out in force on Wangfujing and streets leading into it. Any attempt at protest would not have lasted a minute under such scrutiny.

The government is always edgy as it prepares for the annual session of the country’s legislature, which begins this year on March 5th. But as security precautions as far afield as Kashgar suggest, it is more than usually nervous this time. Copies of The Economist on sale in Beijing had last week's Banyan column (about China in the context of the Arab world’s turmoil) ripped out by censors. CNN’s reports on the upheaval are often blacked out. Even Mr Huntsman’s name has become a blocked search term in China.

China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, in what might have been partly an attempt to assuage any would-be revolutionaries, promised in an online “chat” on Sunday (hours before the called-for protest in Wangfujing) that the government would continue efforts to tame inflation. Rapid increases in house prices have been causing strong resentment among those not yet on the housing ladder. “I only have two years left for my tenure of office. I think the work in the two years will be not at all easier than that in the previous eight years, but will be much tougher instead”, said Mr Wen. Certainly China’s police are braced for trouble. The Economist

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