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Beijing Intensifies Pressure as Jasmine Smile Hits China

July 18, 2011

On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street peddler was mistreated by a law-enforcement officer. The incident prompted a non-violent resistance movement among citizens, which evolved into a “Jasmine Revolution.” This Jasmine Revolution not only peacefully changed the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, but it has also spread to the kingdom of Jordan; to Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world; to Tunisia’s neighbor Algeria; to the one-party state Syria; to the Persian Gulf state of Oman; and to as far as Mauritania in northwestern Africa. Although these countries are not completely alike ideologically, and differ in terms of levels of economic development, they share characteristics that drove their people to take to the street in protest: autocratic rule and corruption. From what happened, we can conclude that, in the course of the current global democratization that is driven by universal values, wherever autocratic rule and corruption exist, there is bound to be the accompanying shadow of citizen resistance.

Wangfujing Street, Beijing, February 20, 2011, at one of the first “Jasmine Revolution” rallies in China. People came out to “stroll, surround, and watch,” despite the large presence of uniform and plainclothes police. Photo credit: Anonymous.

Still, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, stubbornly clinging to power, used violence against people engaged in a nonviolent struggle, triggering a bloody revolt across the country. Gaddafi defended himself by citing Beijing’s use of tanks in 1989 to suppress the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square. That defense not only prompted an uproar in public opinion around the world but also put the Communist Party of China (CPC) authorities in an extremely embarrassed position. Meanwhile, the wave of the Jasmine Revolution that started in the Middle East is also hitting China, causing leaders currently attending the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing to turn pale whenever the word “flower” is mentioned.

The Cat-and-Mouse Game of “Jasmine Smile”

After three calls on the Internet urging people to take “Jasmine Smile”1 strolls on February 20, February 27, and March 6, the strolls took place on a small scale in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities; there were no posters, no slogans, and no organizers. To deal with these strolls, the authorities not only deployed large numbers of police to bolster security but also mobilized many local residents to go to the street to “maintain stability.”

On March 2, the Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Committee issued a press release2 via all major media networks loudly announcing that Beijing would monitor the movements of urban residents via mobile phone data, and that the scope of stability maintenance had been expanded to neighborhoods and schools. Information online indicated that the five entrances to Xi’an Shiyou University had been completely closed, though the gates were reopened at 6 p.m. the same evening, following widespread student complaints. On March 3, students at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology passed out leaflets urging all students to participate in a stroll on Sunday, March 6. On March 5, an online appeal called for Peking University and Tsinghua University students to assemble at noon on Sunday in front of the Hailong Building in Zhongguancun, Beijing’s technology hub. Officials deployed large numbers of police officers to Zhongguancun to stand guard that day; helicopters circled overhead; security was tightened around the area; and subway stations were temporarily closed off. The atmosphere was very tense in Zhongguancun.

This article holds that what happened was just “three Jasmine smiles” —  it was the actions’ initiators playing their cat-and-mouse game. But the authorities became very nervous and mobilized a great force of people, with policemen and plainclothes officers far outnumbering stroll participants. A netizen said mockingly, “The way I see it, this so-called flower revolution is a post-modern democratic revolution that has been made possible by the advocacy of netizens,  the leadership of the Party, the unstinting participation of stability maintenance departments at all levels, the full cooperation of democratic figures, and the appreciation of the on-looking masses.”

Beijing’s Nervous Spasms and Frequent Warnings

On March 4, as China confronted the “Jasmine Smile,” Ye Xiaowen, a member of the Standing Committee of the CPPCC (and former director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs), during a group discussion on stability maintenance at the CPPCC session, referred to the online appeals for a Jasmine Revolution as “crying wolf” repeatedly.3 On March 6, Wang Hui, director of the Beijing Municipal Information Office, commented that some people were attempting to spread the turmoil in Middle Eastern and North African countries to China, and were engaging in so-called street politics, but that their attempts could not possibly succeed.4

Yet while facing three smiling strolls that “could not possibly succeed,” the current political rulers of China had nervous spasms and sounded frequent warnings. According to information online, the CPC Central Propaganda Department banned reporting on the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East and all sensitive issues; even salary raises in the People’s Liberation Army were not to be trumpeted. At the same time, Chinese authorities have officially banned overseas journalists from conducting interviews on Wangfujing Street. During the second Jasmine Smile stroll, plainclothes and uniformed officers physically harassed more than 16 foreign journalists in Beijing, among them an American reporter who was hospitalized for treatment after being beaten. On account of this, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu and foreign reporters quarreled for nearly an hour and a half during a press briefing, causing great embarrassment to the country.5

Wangfujing Street, Beijing, February 20, 2011, at one of the first “Jasmine Revolution” rallies in China. People came out to “stroll, surround, and watch,” despite the large presence of uniform and plainclothes police. Photo credit: Anonymous.

After the NPC and CPPCC sessions began, the authorities began using the Party’s mouthpieces to issue warning and carry out suppression via public opinion. On March 5, 2011, the Beijing Daily ran a special article titled “Conscientiously Safeguard Social Harmony and Stability” (自觉维护社会和谐稳定). It stated: “It should be noted that some people within our borders and beyond who harbor ulterior motives are attempting to spread chaos in China. They are using the Internet to instigate illegal gatherings, futilely trying to create disturbances and stirring up ‘street politics.’ They wave the banner of democracy, but in fact they are engaged in the sordid business of meddling in popular sentiment and destroying social order. We must not let them succeed.”6 On March 6, a Liberation Daily editorial titled “Stability Is the Will of the People” (稳定是人心所向) said: “Those harboring ulterior motives and wanting only chaos in China are merely staging a farce that will amount to nothing.”7 A March 8 Global Times article, “Why Social Unrest Will Not Happen in China” (为什么中国不会发生社会动荡), borrowed what a Chinese Singaporean said: “China will not follow in the footsteps of the Arab world.”8 Ironically, these articles have achieved the opposite of what was intended: they are sounding alarms and, with their incendiary language, are in fact targeting the “people within our borders and beyond who harbor ulterior motives.”

It is well known that when there is a mass public incident in China, the Party-controlled media will speak in one voice and say something like: “the unsuspecting masses are being used by a small number of people with ulterior motives,” and so on. This has become a standard trope used by Chinese officials to smear people’s rights defense actions.

Strengthening Social Management and Raising Awareness of Hostilities

After the three rounds of cat-and-mouse Jasmine Smile strolls, Chinese officials not only launched their attacks via “public opinion” but also intensified the crackdown using police force. Based on situations that have come to light around the country, just talking or spreading information about the Jasmine rallies in QQ group chats9 has resulted in the largest number of people in recent years being taken in for questioning or “talks” (in lighter cases), or locked up or having restrictions placed on their personal freedom (in more serious cases). Based on incomplete statistics, currently more than one hundred people across China have been detained or have had restrictions placed on their personal freedom. Two students at Chongqing Creation Vocational College (formerly the Chongqing Information Engineering College) were taken into custody by local police merely for forwarding information about Jasmine Smile on the Internet. This fully reflects the anxiety of the Party in advance of the power reshuffle in the upcoming 18th Party Congress in autumn 2012.

On February 19, 2011, as President Hu Jintao was facing the onslaught of Jasmine Fragrance from the Middle East, he spoke at the Central Party School, at the opening ceremony of a symposium held for key leaders at the provincial and ministerial levels on the topics of social management and its innovation. Hu emphasized the need to strengthen Party leadership, improve the government’s social management, and control of public opinion. On February 20, 2011, Zhou Yongkang, Secretary of the CPC Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, again called for the reinforcement of social management, consolidation of the Party’s ruling status, and “diligence in resolving contradictions and disputes at an early stage.”10 And then the latest issue of Outlook weekly magazine ran a feature interview with Chen Jiping, the Deputy Secretary-General of the CPC Political and Legislative Affairs Committee. A key official responsible for stability maintenance, Chen laid bare the truth in a single remark: those in power need to “make enhancements and innovations in social management.” Chen said, “Judging from the international situation, the conspiracy of certain hostile forces in the West to westernize China and split the country is escalating. They’re waving the banner of rights defense but are looking for opportunities to meddle in domestic conflicts and are deliberately creating all kinds of disturbances.”11 It is thus evident that, even now, as the waves of world democratization are reaching new height, the Chinese authorities regard all the forces pushing for democratization as “hostile forces.”

Using Costly “Stability Maintenance” to Intensify Pressure

As revealed by the government budget, public security spending (expenditures for “stability maintenance”) this year totals 624 billion yuan, even higher than the national defense budget of 601 billion yuan, and represents an increase of 21.5 percent [over 2009], much greater than the defense budget’s 12.7 percent increase.12 These “public security expenditures” cover the operational costs of bolstering political and legal organs and People’s Armed Police units that respond to social contradiction and various instances of conflict among different interests. They also include expenditures for neighborhood and Internet monitoring and control, and the building of databases for compiling information on special groups such as petitioners, rights defenders, and dissidents.

Compared to last year, the Government Work Report that Premier Wen Jiabao presented in 2011 to the National People’s Congress glossed over political reform but discussed in detail the emphasis on “enhancing and perfecting social management” and maintaining social stability.13 This was in stark contrast to Wen’s many public statements last year, in lofty tone, about the need for political reform. No doubt, this shift represents a retreat on the part of the chief executive after being alarmed by the Jasmine Revolution. As the countdown begins for the Party’s 18th National Congress, Wen Jiabao also cannot help but get in line with the “Two Nevers”14 concept that Zhongnanhai has upheld, regard “stability maintenance” as the paramount task for the government, and thus intensify pressure on society.

Actually, in recent years, even as the cost of China’s “stability maintenance” has been rising continuously, it is indisputable that social conflicts are in fact escalating. Still, there has been no reassessment of the CPC ruling consciousness of “manufacturing enemies.” The Party has not at all learned the modern, civilized governance method of tolerating and respecting the opposition party. This fact foretells that the public’s struggle for rights will continue inevitably and will only intensify.

Can China Produce Jasmine Fragrance?

Wangfujing Street, Beijing, February 20, 2011, at one of the first “Jasmine Revolution” rallies in China. People came out to “stroll, surround, and watch,” despite the large presence of uniform and plainclothes police. Photo credit: Anonymous.

In China, the clash of viewpoints between the government and the people is embodied in the former’s approach to practical issues. For years, officials have painted an era of peace and prosperity that is diametrically opposed to the popular sentiment. Officials always maintain that a unitary political leadership is in keeping with national conditions, that it has resulted in economic development and social stability and has the support of the people, and therefore, as they say currently, there is “no social basis for a Jasmine movement.” However, it is well known that, even as the country faced collapse during the Cultural Revolution, the official line was still shouting “prosperity abounds everywhere.” The people have long denounced such political propaganda, and virtually no one who thinks normally takes it seriously. And now, civil society itself has, through bitter anguish, experienced corruption, polarization, civil rights oppression, and all sorts of injustices; all this has produced a reality of seething popular discontent and continuous mass incidents. This reality has compelled the people, as the government’s credibility disintegrates, to steadfastly fight for the right of “one person, one vote” and to reclaim a political legitimacy that is based on the power of citizen consent.

Today, as world democratization is increasingly cherished by people and the wave of the “Jasmine Smile” hits China, a system that uses one party and one faction to perpetually monopolize power and relies on the backroom deals among a few people for social control can never talk its way into possessing legitimacy and cannot be sustained. No amount of official wishful thinking — that drove the authorities to rely on costly “stability maintenance” and grand-sounding propaganda — can ever alter this fact and this logic.

Right now, although the people’s seething discontent has not yet produced the Jasmine Fragrance,15 what is happening is similar to stock prices that are fluctuating but unable to break through the average trading price range. What we are witnessing indicates people’s passion for “buying” — for pursuing political reforms. But without the additional stimulus that comes from an unpredictable event, there will be insufficient “capital” accumulated to counter the intensified downward pressure. Can China produce Jasmine Fragrance? Facts will prevail over sophistry. In reality, a rehearsal has been staged before, during the June Fourth Tiananmen Incident.

Therefore, for the Chinese officials there is only one way to break free from the challenges presented by the “Jasmine Smile”: fundamentally reassess the “Beijing political model” that they advocate, boldly respond to the “buying” passion in the civil society’s search for the source of power and legitimacy, and not miss the opportunity to advance constitutional government reform. There is no other way!

Translated by Martin Witte.

Editors' Notes

1. “Jasmine Smile” comes from Jasmine Rallies organizers’ urging that rally participants smile at policemen and other law enforcement authorities during their strolls. ^

2. “Chengshi taidu tianxinzhao shimin chuxing dongtai xinxi pingtai choujian” [城市治堵添新招 市民出行动态信息平台筹建], Beijing Economic Information Center [北京市经济信息中心], March 2, 2011, ^

3. Meng Ke [蒙克], “Meng Ke: ‘molihua’ gei Zhongghuo tiaozhan he jihui,” [蒙克: “茉莉花” 给中国挑战和机会], British Broadcasting Company, March 6, 2011, ^

4. Ben Blanchard, “Beijing Says ‘Jasmine Protest” Calls Doomed to Fail,” Reuters, March 6, 2011, ^

5. Human Rights in China, “Chinese MFA Spokesperson to Reporter: ‘Don’t Use the Law as a Shield’,” March 4, 2011, ^

6. Ren Siwen [任思文], “Zijue weihu shehui hexie wending” [自觉维护社会和谐稳定], March 5, 2011, Beijing Daily [北京日报], ^

7. Fu Jingjie[傅晶杰], “Wending shi renxin suo xiang” [稳定是人心所向], Jiefang Daily [解放日报], March 6, 2011, ^

8. “Weishenme Zhongguo buhui fasheng shehui dongdang” [为什么中国不会发生社会动荡], March 8, 2011, Global Times [环球时报], ^

9. QQ is a popular Chinese instant messaging platform. ^

10. “Zhou Yongkang : Shiying jingji shehui fazhan, jiaqiang he chuangxin shehui guanli” [周永康:适应经济社会发展,加强和创新社会管理], Xinhua News Agency [新华社], February 20, 2011, ^

11. “Zhuanfang Chen Jiping: 2011 nian shehui hexie wending xin bushu” [专访陈冀平: 2011年社会和谐稳定新部署], Outlook [瞭望], February 21, 2011. ^

12. Xu Kai, Chen Xiaoshu, and Li Weiao [徐凯、陈晓舒及李微敖], “Gonggong anquan zhangdan” [公共安全账单], Caijing [财经], 2011 no. 11, ^

13. “Highlights: Premier Wen’s Gov’t Work Report,” Xinhua News Agency, March 5, 2011. ^

14. On March 9, 2009, Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, i.e., China’s legislature, in a work report delivered at the second plenary meeting of the Second Session of the 11th National People’s Congress, emphasized that China would never copy the systems of Western countries, and never introduce a multi-party system of holding office in rotation, “separation of powers,” or a bicameral system. ^

15. “Jasmine Fragrance” is a metaphor for a movement in full swing: fragrance comes when the flower blossoms. ^

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