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.
People’s Square, the site of Shanghai’s horse racing track in pre-revolutionary days, has become a symbolic center of gravity in Shanghai, not unlike Times Square in New York. This, and the fact that it is at the intersection of three metro lines, making it easily accessible to millions of residents, is undoubtedly the reason why it was chosen as the rally site. As I approached the area, I noticed that the metro exit closest to Peace Cinema was blocked, with a sign saying (in Chinese) “This area is closed for maintenance. Please use another exit. Thank you for your cooperation.” I therefore used another exit, leading to a large shopping mall, Raffles City, which directly joins onto the Peace Cinema and contains the Starbucks immediately adjacent to the rally site. The Starbucks looked normal from within the mall except that the outdoor tables had been moved inside the mall. Quite strangely for a pleasant Sunday afternoon, the entrance to Peace Cinema was blocked, and the theater itself was completely closed. Entering Starbucks from the mall, I found the door to the outside was also blocked, with a sign saying, obviously falsely, “This door is out of order. Please use the back door.”
There was nothing else to do except go outside, using the mall’s main entrance. As I reached the sidewalk, I had no idea what to expect, and would not have been surprised to find nothing, or find the entire area fenced off. Instead, to my amazement, it was immediately very obvious that something unusual was going on. A crowd of perhaps three to four hundred had gathered in the rally area. It was clear that most of them were not just pedestrians, because they were just standing around, as if they were waiting for something to happen. In fact, this was more or less what the Jasmine organizers had requested -- for people to simply show up at the appointed place and time, without saying or doing anything in particular. There were also hundreds of pedestrians just passing by coincidentally, some of whom, as in Beijing last week, were attracted by the crowd and stopped to gawk (an instinct to join crowds, rather than avoid them, is one noticeable characteristic of Chinese culture which differentiates it from American culture).
Several people had cameras and were very conspicuously videotaping the rally. The obvious question is whether these people were demonstrators or working for the government; my guess would be mostly the latter, although it’s impossible to be sure. The police presence was indeed heavy, just as it had been at the first Jasmine rally last week, according to reports. There seemed to be several different kinds of police; some wore standard police uniforms, while others had private security badges, and there seemed to be some rough-looking individuals on the periphery of the crowd without any uniform at all observing everything. It is certainly possible that the latter were plainclothes policemen. I also saw a few foreigners.
The mood at this event was odd, difficult to describe, and very different from the last major political gathering I witnessed in China, which was the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, held in Hong Kong in 1999. At the Shanghai Jasmine Rally, the people who looked like demonstrators were mostly older Chinese; their facial expressions were a peculiar combination of determination, curiosity, and cynicism. The cops seemed slightly jumpy but also bored, because at least during the short time I was there, it was apparent that nothing very dramatic was happening.
Oddly, a small street sweeper was moving down the sidewalk, apropos of nothing. I later learned that last week, the same faintly ludicrous tactic was used in Beijing to clear the rally area there. After lingering in the mall for a while, I checked the area again before leaving. The only change was that a police officer was walking up and down repeating a Chinese phrase into a megaphone; I was unable to get this phrase translated before filing this article, but it is likely that he was ordering the area to be cleared, aided by the street sweeper.
Few would dispute that the PRC is a vastly better-governed country than Libya, and probably much better than Egypt as well. But similarities nevertheless exist. China’s ruling party took power by force, with Stalin’s help, and has never once dared to test its legitimacy at the ballot box. The party constantly asserts that it has invented a new “Confucian” model of government which is superior to “Western democracy,” even though, as the democratic revolutions sweeping the Arab world have so forcefully demonstrated, the appeal of democratic governance obviously extends beyond the limits of Western civilization; indeed, in today’s world, most people living under democratic governments are not “Western,” as the term has been traditionally understood.
The CCP and its defenders also claim that it has wide public support, although if this is really the case, why does the party need to hire tens of thousands of low-paid drones to defend its record on public Internet sites? Why, indeed, does the CCP feel the need to undertake its massive Internet censorship program -- by far the most aggressive, intrusive and expensive in the world -- which focuses special attention on any site where individual people can give uncensored opinions? (Youtube, Blogspot, Wordpress, IMDb, Twitter, and Facebook are among the most prominent targets of the “Great Firewall.”) The CCP’s own actions demonstrate beyond doubt, to any thinking person, that the Party knows it is losing popular support, and therefore seeks to muzzle anyone who cannot be bought off or intimidated (the roster of foreign companies and even governments who fit in one of the latter two categories is depressingly long).
The basic problem with the Chinese system, whether one calls it neo-Confucianism, market-Leninism, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” or any other label, is actually quite simple. Compared to the Western-democratic model, it lacks two basic features: freedom of speech, and public accountability.
Without freedom of speech, problems invariably fester until they become so serious that they result in mob violence. This is the basic reason why China now has serious incidents of public disorder nearly 100,000 times every year, even by the government’s own reckoning -- and the number has been steadily rising. China actually has many excellent journalists who would be happy to expose local problems, as they do in other countries; instead, these reports are usually suppressed. Even in the rare cases where they become so well known that the official media are forced to discuss them, the Party line is always that disasters, such as plastic baby formula, or shoddily built schools killing thousands of children in an earthquake, are the fault of a few inexplicably depraved local scapegoats, not the inevitable result of the system itself, or (God forbid) the ultimate responsibility of China’s unelected Politburo. The intent of the Party’s death grip over the media is to protect the CCP’s reputation, but this cannot work in the long run, because a failure to deal with the underlying causes of problems simply guarantees their repetition in the future, and a lack of credible media causes exaggerated rumors and conspiracy theories to be accepted as fact by the population.
Without public accountability, government officials will invariably do the rational thing, which is to ignore what the public wants and curry favor with their superiors instead. This is why Hu Jintao, the former governor of Tibet, became China’s leader even though he was hated by most Tibetans: it made no difference what his subjects thought of his performance -- only the opinion of the CCP higher-ups carried any weight. And this is also why corruption has exploded out of control: as long as government officials make enough money to keep their superiors and other officials happy, it makes no difference if ordinary people think that their taxes and bank deposits are being wasted. It is no coincidence that one key demand of the Jasmine organizers is this: “the details of tax collection [must] be published, and that taxes [should be] genuinely ‘collected from the people, and used for the people.’”
Perhaps the most fundamental problem with dictatorship, as a form of government, is that dictators, for the reasons just mentioned, always end up surrounded by fawning lackeys who tell them whatever they want to hear, and insulate them from the real concerns of the population. The result is that eventually, the dictator begins to lose touch with the reality in his country, and is especially prone to believe a claim that has never been true -- indeed, cannot be true -- in any human society: that the dictator, or his political organization, are indispensable to the nation. Events in Libya over the last few days have provided a very clear example of where this phenomenon can lead.
Unfortunately for the Communist Party of China, it shows every indication of falling victim to all these syndromes. Hu Jintao delivers condescending lectures to the Chinese people about the need to “solve prominent problems which might harm the harmony and stability of the society,” as though they are children who could not possibly be aware that Hu himself, as the leader of the CCP, is the single individual most directly and personally responsible for the “problems which are harming the harmony and stability of the society.”At the same time, China’s prosperity and integration with the global economy have created a huge middle class which has no patience for, and no interest in, the patronizing lessons of a self-appointed philosopher-king.
As for the myth of indispensability, this is practically the foundation stone of the CCP regime, which constantly, and ridiculously, refers to itself as “China,” an arrogant inanity reminiscent of precisely the feudal system Marx sought to overthrow (e.g., the alleged claim of Louis XIV that “L'État, c'est moi”). For example, the CCP defends Mao Zedong’s monstrous democide with this shibboleth: “Without Chairman Mao, there would be no New China.” But the term “New China,” when it was originally used, meant nothing except China ruled by the CCP, headed by Chairman Mao -- so the statement is logically equivalent to the moronically circular “Without Chairman Mao, there would be no China ruled by Chairman Mao.” Even after years living in China, it remains unclear to me how the country was improved by forcing people to regurgitate this kind of idiocy.
Furthermore, the CCP was never “chosen” by the Chinese people but rather imposed on China by the defunct Soviet Union; does not represent “Chinese” ideas, but rather a totally discredited and colossally destructive detour in Western philosophy; has never included more than a tiny fraction of Chinese people as members; is directly responsible for catastrophic policies which killed at least fifty million Chinese citizens; and delayed China’s economic modernization by at least three decades, among countless other crimes. (The regime’s foreign policy misdeeds, such as propping up Kim Il-Sung and Pol Pot, are simply too extensive to discuss here.) For such an organization to claim identity with the 5000-year-old Chinese civilization, to say nothing of the 1.2 billion Chinese people now living, who have never once endorsed its leadership in a free vote, is more than just false -- it is, in fact, profoundly insulting to the intelligence of any patriotic Chinese person, and ought to make them livid with rage.
In reality, the CCP not only is not now, but never was, indispensable to China. The historical record shows clearly that China would have been much better off under almost any conceivable alternative government, starting with the rival Kuomintang, which managed to develop Taiwan 25 years faster than the mainland and without any government-manufactured famines or mass political psychosis. The Qing dynasty was backward and corrupt, but certainly lacked the creativity or murderous ruthlessness to produce a “Great Leap Forward” catastrophe. And putting the British in charge would have created an environment far more amenable to prosperity for the ordinary Wang on the street, as Hong Kong’s gold-plated success has irrefutably proved. In fact, so extreme was the murderous incompetence of Mao and his vile cronies, like Kang Sheng and Lin Biao, that the Shanghai Green Gang probably could have run China better than they did.
The Beijing regime’s Qaddafi-like disconnect with reality was very apparent in the recent statements of CCP officials like Chen Jiping, deputy secretary general of the party's Political and Legal Affairs Committee, who told a journalist: "the schemes of some hostile Western forces attempting to Western[ize] and split us are intensifying, and they are waving the banner of defending rights to meddle in domestic conflicts and maliciously create all kinds of incidents." In actuality, leaving aside the obviously indigenous origins of the Jasmine Rallies and the many other anti-regime movements of recent years, there is no Western government that could possibly hope to damage China as much as depraved CCP officials like Lin Jiaxiang, who attempted to molest an 11-year-old girl in a restaurant in late 2008, then threatened bystanders when he was caught, screaming, “Do you know who I am? I was sent here by the Beijing Ministry of Transportation, my level is the same as your mayor. ... You dare f**k with me? Just watch how I am going to deal with you!”
Although the Lin case is extreme, basically similar incidents are not rare; this writer has lived in several countries and visited many more, but has never seen one where government officials, at every level, are as despised by ordinary people as they are in mainland China. There are tens of millions of Chinese, maybe hundreds of millions, who silently bear a deep, bitter hostility towards the CCP that, if it is ever unleashed, could create a convulsion that would make Libya’s pale into insignificance.
One noteworthy manifestation of these sentiments was a rapidly banned poem called “You, Us” that appeared online sometime in 2009 (the following is a translated excerpt):
You needn’t struggle to find work, nor live under high real estate prices,
You needn’t pay for your medical expenses, nor piteously rush about.
You eat at banquets, live in villas, drive nice cars, receive plush benefits, and travel abroad.
You spend our money and monopolize our dreams with power,
Daily you curse us uncultured, implacable commoners.
You have cannons and bayonets, but develop our waters with others,
And you use them [weapons] only against your own people who give birth to and raise you.
You have high walls and iron fences, yet evil-doers remain far outside the law,
Those who speak loudly in the name of justice are put in prison.
Our housing resembles that of slaves,
Our cars must yield to yours,
We are busier and busier at work,
Our pay is unchanging year after year.
Our doctor’s fees are more and more expensive,
Our food is filthier and filthier,
Our taxes are heavier and heavier,
Our days pass tenser and tenser.
Our injustices have already nowhere to appeal,
Our power has already been forgotten.
Your policies pay our assertions no mind,
Your lives are unlike our[s]!
Can a party that evokes such bone-deep loathing really remain in power forever? Perhaps CCP leaders, as they tremble in their fortified compounds, are fortunate that the Jasmine Rally movement has repeatedly stressed nonviolence, saying, for example, “We do not support violent revolution; we continue to support non-violent non-cooperation.” As the Jasmine Rallies are suppressed, and the CCP sinks ever deeper into political quicksand of its own making, will every future opposition group be so generous?