A First-Hand Report from a 'Jasmine Rally' in Shanghai

In mid-February, as the anti-authoritarian wave sweeping the Middle East continued to gather momentum, a Twitter user using the account name of Shudong posted a tweet announcing that “Jasmine Revolution” rallies would be held on February 20th in every large city in China, and announced that the details would be posted later elsewhere. This information was indeed posted as promised, apparently on the U.S.-based website Boxun.com; it called for rallies to be held on the 20th in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Nanjing, and other major cities around the country, and repeated every seven days thereafter, until such time as the organizers’ concerns were met.

According to a translation posted on the China Digital Times website, which often reports on dissident and other pro-democracy activities, the Jasmine organizers cited a number of grievances as the reason for their action, including:

  • corruption (“a government that grows more corrupt by the day...”)
  • high inequality (“Why is it that in just the last few decades China has gone from being a country with the smallest gap between the rich and the poor to one with the largest?”)
  • high inflation (“The excessive printing of currency is recklessly diluting the value of the people’s wealth.”)
  • lack of judicial independence (“we are resolute in asking the government and the officials to accept the supervision of ordinary Chinese people, and we must have an independent judiciary.”)
  • the one-party system itself (“China belongs to every Chinese person, not to any political party.... The Chinese people’s thirst for freedom and democracy is unstoppable”.)

Interestingly, the “freedom and democracy” language was a direct quote from China’s current premier, Wen Jiabao, and acknowledged as such. Premier Wen spoke those words during a remarkable CNN interview last year, where he appeared to support the idea of political reform, triggering speculation of a rift within China’s top leadership over fundamental political issues. On the morning of February 26th, in an action that seemed clearly timed to pre-empt the second weekly Jasmine Rally (scheduled for the afternoon of the 27th), Wen conducted a highly unusual web chat with Chinese citizens, in which he promised to address a number of the grievances raised by the Jasmine Rally organizers, including taming inflation, runaway property prices, and environmental damage. This chat was heavily covered by Xinhua, the Chinese Communist Party-controlled news service, but tellingly, no mention was made of political reform.

It was unclear whether this extraordinary chat was instigated by Wen himself, or by China’s top leaders as a whole. Regardless of which is the case, the lack of any similar action by President Hu Jintao was very conspicuous. This was consistent with Hu’s reputation: his unwillingness to consider even the most timid political reforms has been duly noted by China’s people, who have begun referring to him in sardonic Internet postings as “Hu-barak” or (more recently) “Hu-ammar Qaddafi.” These appellations are partly a response to the Chinese regime’s pervasive Internet censorship, which has cracked down heavily on postings that mention the fallen Arab dictators by name.

Unfortunately, the Wen chat was only the nice-guy public face of Beijing’s response to the Jasmine Rallies -- the mere suggestion that its top leaders could end up like Hosni Mubarak appears to have given the CCP a serious case of the vapors, and its response was strikingly disproportionate to the actual act which triggered the rallies. Within hours of the first postings, according to Chinese sources cited by CDT, police were requesting server logs to hunt down “Shudong,” who had posted anonymously. Detentions of several top dissidents soon followed, while others were put under house arrest. CCP goons even threatened to rape the wife of one dissident, according to technology blogger Jason Ng. Ng also cited claims on some websites that the army had been issued live ammunition to deal with the protests.

In addition, the regime directed a number of employees (the so called “fifty cent party," named for the amount of money they receive for each pro-regime Internet posting) to register with Twitter; these individuals immediately began cranking out posts denouncing the “Jasmine Revolution” as illegal and claiming it was a secret plot by the United States. Search terms related to the “Jasmine Rallies,” including the word “Jasmine” itself, were rapidly banned from Chinese websites. Ironically, “Jasmine” is the name of a Chinese folk song that was a favorite of Jiang Zemin, and was publicly sung by Hu Jintao, meaning that censorship of the word also wiped out “patriotic” posts meant to praise CCP leaders.

All this, and many other repressive measures both in cyberspace and the real world, took place before the first actual rallies. When the initial Jasmine Rallies finally did occur on the 20th, most observers found them to be somewhat anticlimactic. In the capital, the appointed site was in front of a McDonald’s in the Wangfujing neighborhood; hundreds of people appeared, but it was impossible to know how many were demonstrators and how many were accidental passersby or simply gawkers (according to Ng, some people thought that a Chinese movie star was in the area). However, there were at least three arrests, according to the Los Angeles Times, and one attendee was questioned after he attempted to photograph jasmine flowers with his mobile phone. Police presence in the area was heavy, with hundreds of officers guarding both ends of the streets and physically pushing away foreign journalists with cameras, according to an AFP report. In Shanghai, at least three people were detained, and staff at a popular Starbucks next to the appointed rally site were apparently directed to remove chairs and tables from the sidewalk outside the store.

Visiting a Shanghai “Jasmine Rally”

In light of all these events, this writer, who happened to be in Shanghai on business on February 27th (the appointed day for the second Shanghai “Jasmine Rally”), decided to visit the rally site, a plaza in front of the “Peace Cinema” in the People’s Square neighborhood, and see what, if anything, was happening there.