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[liberationtech] China Jasmine Revolution

Rebecca MacKinnon rebecca.mackinnon at gmail.com
Sun Feb 20 16:53:11 PST 2011


Another take: 
http://freedomchina.blogspot.com/2011/02/chinas-jasmine-protest-reflection-on.html

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2011

China’s Jasmine Protest: The Story and Reflection
On February 18, 2011, a call to protest in 13 major cities inside China was circulated on the Internet. The first website that posted this announcement, boxun.com, was immediately taken down by hackers believed working for Chinese government. Then the second website, canyu.org, was also brought down (and is still down until this time). Such unusual attack suggested the extreme nervousness about this information by the Chinese government. Very soon, a small buzz started to generate around the tag #cn220, on the upcoming protest. Someone has salvaged the protest announcement before those two sites went down and posted it on a Facebook page of an oversea Chinese.

While people outside China are keenly aware of upcoming protest through Twitter and facebook, such information was not available in China at all. For one, both Twitter and Facebook are banned in China. Those who can access them from China are a few tech savvy intellectuals who know how to get around Great Fire Wall. Second, if anyone attempts to post sensitive information referring to protest or even phrase “Jasmine Revolution” in China, the post will be deleted immediately. Chinese government has hired more than 1 million online forum moderators whose only job is deleting sensitive postings. In addition, Chinese micro-blog sites started to block the word “Jasimine”, making searching for protest information impossible. 

The night before the protest, on February 19, Chinese security forces clamped own on potential protesters. A dozen activists who are known on Twitter were rounded up and detained. University students were asked to stay on campus, not going out Sunday. In addition, all police were called back on duty on Sunday. Apparently, the Chinese government was deeply worried, which explained the large security force deployed near the protest sites.

Was the Chinese government overreacting, or was it truly afraid a large protest could be sparkled? Given intelligence gathering capacity (with deep spying on its population) by Chinese authority, the government certainly believed there would be a genuine possibility of outpouring of protest supporters. This is due to the fact that there are some major grievances surfacing in recent years. The death of a village head on Christmas day last year generated big public outcry as land grabbing and forced migration become widespread in China. More than 10,000 protests broke out in China each year in various cities, some of which are very bloody confrontation. None of these protests is ever reported in Chinese media, but Chinese authority knows fully well how strong the public sentiment is. Combining those grievance to the call for protest should be very potent for a big rally. 

But the Chinese authority has successful achieved, while no government except probably North Korea can achieve, a complete information blackout. More than 99.9% people simply have not heard about the protest. The Great information fire wall, and the great Chinese censorship has made the words “Jasmine Revolution” simply disappear. They cannot be mentioned, and they cannot be searched.

In addition, unlike Egyptian organizers who could use Facebook to gather large followers for their upcoming protests, their Chinese counterpart has no such tools. 

On February 20th, the day of protest, hundreds of people still managed to show up in Beijing and Shanghai at pre-announced protest location under huge police presence. More than 10 police vans are lining up nearby in these locations, and across China’s major cities. In Beijing people did not shout a slogan. But a man who carried a bouquet of jasmine flowers were immediately taken away by the police. Three people were arrested in Shanghai, one man was arrested in Bejing, and in Guangzhou, a lawyer named Liu Shihui was beaten on his way to protest.

Within 2 hours, the crowd were dispersed by police, thus ended the planned protest. 

Would ordinary Chinese people join the protest if they know about it? We would know the answer if the government had not hacked down the announcement sites, or blocked Facebook and Twitter, or filtered out the word “Jasmine Revolution” in micro-blog, or deleted all posts that announced this protest. In other words, the government has no choice but a complete information blackout. Apparently, the government has no confidence to let even 1% of people know about this protest.

When we celebrate the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East, we do not realize how important the social networking technologies is until we look at China. The three websites that play crucial roles in Egypt uprisings: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are all banned in China. In fact, China blocked more than 100 websites that it considered “subversive” including networking sites such as Foursquare.

Another condition for Jasmine Revolution to work is reasonable political openness. Today’s China is comparable to Egypt under Mubarak 20 years ago, when there is no opposition parties, no elections, no outside TV channels. There is almost no independent union in China. Before Mubarak regime was toppled, Egyptian people already enjoy reasonable amount of freedom that is enviable by today’s Chinese people. 

The third condition that is missing is TV channels like Al Jazeera, which brings uncensored information to people. There is no independent TV station in China, and no Chinese is allowed to watch Satellite TV program outside China. For a long time, Chinese relies on Voice of America (VOA) to get information from outside. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is considering shutting down the VOA Chinese broadcast program. How can you promote democracy in China when shutting down program that serves an important role in this aspect?   

While the jasmine flower has not blossomed in China, we have seen a seed is sowed there. The significance of February 20’s protest is that this is the first attempt in 22 years since the 1989’s bloody Tiananmen crackdown, any Chinese dared to openly challenge the government and openly call for a protest. Such boldness was unthinkable just 1 month ago. It shows the profound impact of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. The desire for freedom and basic rights is universal. It rings true from the Arab world all the way to the east Asia.

On Feb 20, 2011, at 4:53 PM, Graham Webster wrote:

> Hi everyone,
> 
> There was an interesting (probably satirical) blogpost circulated on the China civil society list recently, and I decided it was worth translating. It's written in the voice of an innocent student who stumbled upon the Beijing McDonalds gathering and was perplexed by the police behavior. Wan Yanhai, who posted it to C-CIVSOC, gave it the title "Police leading Jasmine Revolution in Beijing". Link to full post with images. Rough translated portion below.
> 
> http://transpacifica.net/2011/02/21/police-led-protests-satire-and-the-jasmine-revolution/
> 
> The new term was about to start and our teacher sent out a memorization assignment [前赤壁赋/qiancibishu, a work from the Northern Song dynasty that I don't know anything about]. I tried to do the memorization in a quiet place, but made awful progress. I wondered if it would go better at Wangfujing [a major commercial street in Beijing].
> 
> I was just studying in front of McDonalds, and unable to concentrate, I realized several police cars and some police officers had shown up. Then, out of the crowd came a team of people [police] who suddenly dispersed, some standing nearby and others at a distance.
> 
> I tried my best to concentrate, but soon there arrived a group of photographers.
> 
> Later, more people came and stood at the door of the McDonalds, and quite a few more police showed up. The police presence gradually grew, and the crowd gradually dispersed.
> 
> When I left, I noticed that the police at the perimeter had moved closer.
> 
> What was happening? I took a few pictures.
> 
> (All of these pictures can be downloaded at Picasa)
> 
> Why would people stop to watch an unusual number of police? The People’s Police love the people; the people love the People’s Police? [This I believe is a play on a slogan.] When I was taking pictures, someone hit me in the head. How could whoever did this be so audacious as to attack people [renmin] in front of almost 100 police. And how could the People’s Police turn a blind eye?
> 
> If you know the truth, please don’t say it. Let people live with their illusions.
> 
> 
> --
> Graham Webster | 魏光明
> Ph.D. student, Political Science
> University of Washington
> http://gwbstr.com
> g at gwbstr.com
> 
> On Feb 20, 2011, at 4:17 AM, feng37 wrote:
> 
>> Thanks, will do. Personally I find it more interesting that so many people were willing to entertain the possibility, however slight, that what happened in Tunisia (or Egypt) could conceivably take place in China. Hope, not belief, so I say jarring in response to the tone of the post from the headline down, how the author notes that the protests were nipped in the bud through arrests and aggressive censorship and then finds the Beijing protest turnout 'ridiculous', as if that were the fault of those who showed up.
>> 
>> In fact, comments yesterday from Stainless Steel Mouse (@liudimouse) and Mo Zhixu (@mozhixu) and others already sought to base today's outcome on its 'performance art' aspect. Contrary to apparent assumptions in this post below, discussions on Twitter bore little expectation that a large-scale revolution would be born today in China. There were a number of comments directly mentioning China's massive 'stability office' budget, as well as questions regarding how much police mobilization today would end up costing taxpayers.
>> 
>> As for the motivation of the protests, I wouldn't call it a foregone conclusion that demands for greater freedom and transparency cannot find popular support in China, suppression or not. There also seems to be an underlying assumption in the post that it is absurd that such a small and vulnerable group would put themselves at such great risk. OK, strictly speaking, but doesn't reflect what I saw of debates on Twitter yesterday and today.
>> 
>> The risks in using Twitter to be transparent in spreading information like the locations and time of this protest and others must seem to be an acceptable trade-off in exchange for relatively unfettered access to uncensored discussions with like-minded people, and lack of a better alternative. Perhaps fortunately, on the lowest common denominator side, one of the most popular Twitter clients in China 'sensitive keyword' (https://tuite.im/) was blocked yesterday. I say fortunately because little is known about who developed or maintains it, who has access to users' passwords, etc.
>> 
>> On Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 6:33 PM, Yosem Companys <companys at stanford.edu> wrote:
>> Thanks for sharing, Feng.  We'd love to hear your perspective.  Thanks.  
>> 
>> PS  Please make sure you're using Tor to anonymize your net access.
>> 
>> 
>> On Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 2:29 AM, feng37 <dxzine at gmail.com> wrote:
>> Hi, newcomer to the list (@feng37 on Twitter). Thanks for sharing, it's quite jarring to see this kind of triumphalism over the fact that the protests were effectively squashed.
>> 
>> On Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 4:58 PM, Yosem Companys <companys at stanford.edu> wrote:
>> The Revolution That Wasn’t
>> February 20, 2011
>> By C. Custer
>> 
>> http://chinageeks.org/2011/02/the-revolution-that-wasnt/
>> Late last night, I noticed that calls for large protests in several major Chinese cities were circulating on Twitter. Using the hashtag #cn220, users were reposting information from the overseas Chinese website Boxun, where an anonymous user had called for a Chinese “Jasmine Revolution.” This morning, those reports were mixed with reports that police and the military had already begun to form up in the locations designated for protest around the country. Naturally, I decided it would be a good idea to grab a camera and head to the Wangfujing area, where Beijing’s protest was supposed to happen.
>> 
>> I should note that I didn’t actually expect to find much. This news was being passed around almost exclusively on websites blocked in China, and many of the people making tweets seemed to be making them from outside China. There were people announcing that China’s jasmine revolution had begun at 11 in the morning, three hours before the protests were even supposed to start. But very few Chinese people had even heard about it, and many of the Chinese twitter users I follow said they had already been threatened, detained, or otherwise instructed not to go by police or Party authorities.
>> 
>> When we arrived, around 1:40, there was already a small group of people clustered around the entrance to McDonalds, the area designated online as the center of the protest. Most of them were carrying expensive photo or video cameras, and it was clear that a good percentage of the crowd was journalists.
>> 
>> I met up with a couple foreign correspondents I happen to know who had arrived slightly before me. We joked for a little whole about the “revolutionary” atmosphere, or lack thereof, and the ridiculousness of the growing crowd of people, photographing itself. Of course, we were also participants.
>> 
>> A little after 2pm, the crowd reached its largest, perhaps two or three hundred people, although there were people coming and leaving all the time because Wangfujing is naturally a fairly busy place. Aside from one moment, where we could see a bouquet of flowers fly above the heads of the center of the crowd–perhaps they were jasmine flowers?–I saw nothing at any point that could be considered protesting. No one shouted slogans, no one held signs, it was just a group of people standing around photographing each other.
>> 
>> Of course, the crowd drew an increasingly heavy police presence, and they herded people around the area for more than an hour before managing to more or less clear the place out. At one point, they drove everyone from in front of the McDonalds, so the crowd moved along the building’s side, blocking the road there, at which point the police herded everyone back in front of the McDonalds.
>> 
>> For the most part, the police showed surprising restraint, at least for Chinese cops. I saw no incidents of violence, although I did overhear an argument between a citizen and a police officer who had confiscated the man’s cell phone, and I did personally get into a shouting match with a police officer who shoved me. There were other reports of roughhousing, but nothing more than a bit of shoving and pushing.
>> 
>> After an hour or so, we left. There were still some people hanging around, but it was clear that everyone was waiting to see what would happen and no one was going to actually do anything. Even the police were getting bored. As we left, we passed a large group of them and overheard their commander say “Back to normal!” As we walked down the stairs and into the subway station, they piled into their vans and began to drive away.
>> 
>> It’s clear that if change will come to China, it will come from within. A revolution cannot be hoped or tweeted into existence by overseas Chinese, or overzealous Twitter fans drunk off their so-called victories in North Africa.
>> 
>> As a side note, I continue to marvel at the Beijing police’s ability to take nothing and turn it into an incident. Had they not come out in such large numbers and not tried to force people to leave, I suspect this would have been an even smaller “protest”.
>> 
>> 
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