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.