Just after the streets of Tunisia and Egypt erupted, China saw a series of “Jasmine” protests—until the government stopped them cold. Its methods were subtler than they had been at Tiananmen Square, and more insidious. Was the regime’s defensive reaction just paranoia? Or is the Chinese public less satisfied—and more combustible—than it appears?
Something big is happening in China, and it started soon after the onset of the “Arab Spring” demonstrations and regime changes first in Tunisia and then in Egypt: the most serious and widespread wave of repression since the Tiananmen Square crackdowns 22 years ago. Of course, “worst since Tiananmen Square” does not mean “as bad as Tiananmen Square.” As the government has taken pains to ensure, there have been no coordinated nationwide protests so far, and troops from the People’s Liberation Army, in their instantly recognizable green uniforms, have not played the major role that they did then in containing dissent. Instead, enforcement around the country has been left mainly to regular police, typically in their dark-blue uniforms; the much-feared “urban management” patrols known as chengguan, also in dark blue; large reserve armies of plainclothesmen; and many other less visible parts of the state’s internal-security apparatus, which now has a larger budget than China’s regular military does.
Unlike in 1989, for most people in most of the country, life and business since the beginning of the Arab Spring have hummed along relatively normally. The main domestic concerns in China at the moment are rapid inflation, especially in food prices; a severe long-term nationwide drought (broken by occasional severe localized flooding), which has threatened farms in the country’s normally wet southern provinces and brought Dust Bowl conditions to parts of the normally dry north; and widening scandals and public fear about tainted food supplies. In May, a report based on figures from the Chinese Ministry of Health showed that cancer had become the country’s leading cause of death, which is an unusual and revealing distinction. In poorer countries, infectious diseases are usually the main killers; in richer ones, heart disease and other consequences of a sedentary, wealthy lifestyle. The rising prevalence of cancer, including in “cancer villages” near factories or mines in China’s still-poor countryside, was taken even by Chinese commentators as another indication of the urgency of dealing with the environmental consequences of the country’s nonstop growth. For modern China, though, all of these are familiar concerns.
A set of less familiar problems developed with amazing speed early in the year. In mid-January, Hu Jintao met Barack Obama in Washington, on what would be Hu’s last official visit to the United States. In a little more than a year, Hu will finish his second five-year term as president and relinquish the job, presumably to anointee/Vice President Xi Jinping. The meetings in Washington were as constructive and positive-toned as such events can be. Obama gave Hu the gala White House state dinner (which my wife and I attended) that he had notably not received on his previous American visit: five years earlier, George W. Bush had offered Hu only a lunch at the White House, an omission the more startling given the standard Chinese practice of building even the most trivial business meeting around a celebratory banquet. Officials from both sides noted their areas of political and economic disagreement (arms sales to Taiwan, status of the Dalai Lama, etc.) but also signed numerous cooperative agreements, in fields ranging from clean-energy research to student exchanges and increased military interactions. President Ben Ali had been forced from power in Tunisia just days before Hu Jintao traveled to Washington. The Tahrir Square protests against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt began just after Hu returned to Beijing, and were soon followed by the uprisings in Jordan, Yemen, Syria, and Libya. The spread of protest from one Arab-Islamic country to its neighbors might have seemed predictable. Less so was the effect in China.
On Sunday afternoon, February 20, while Muammar Qaddafi’s troops were shooting into unarmed crowds in Benghazi, a handful of Chinese staged the first of a projected series of weekly “Jasmine” protests designed to extend the spirit of the Arab Spring protests to several major Chinese cities. The demonstration in Beijing was held in front of a McDonald’s restaurant at the Wangfujing intersection, not far from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. That day, several dozen demonstrators were matched by about the same number of foreign reporters, plus large numbers of passersby and onlookers (Wangfujing on a weekend is one of Beijing’s most jammed areas) and larger groups of uniformed and plainclothes police.
Among the onlookers was Jon Huntsman Jr. with his family. Huntsman, then in his last weeks as the U.S. ambassador to China before returning to run for the presidency, looked like a Chinese pop-culture caricature of a cool-cat American. He was wearing sunglasses—the day was cold but brilliantly clear—and a Top Gun–style brown-leather aviator jacket with a big American-flag patch on the left shoulder. He had become a well-known figure in Beijing, from his bike rides around town and his command of spoken Mandarin, and he was quickly picked out by Chinese in the crowd and captured on camera phones in photos and a video that soon spread across the Internet.
Even though Huntsman maintained that he’d been out on a family stroll and happened by the protest inadvertently, no one in China believed that, and the video of him with two strapping sons, misidentified as bodyguards, quickly circulated in China as proof that the United States was engineering the protests. I don’t know whether Huntsman’s presence was an accident. I do know that having America’s senior representative on the scene was damaging, given the hypersensitivity of the Chinese government and many citizens to the merest hint of foreign meddling in domestic affairs. (On the most-circulated video, a Chinese man yells at Huntsman, “You want chaos for China, don’t you?”) It also illustrated the awkwardness of Huntsman’s staying on as ambassador to America’s most important partner/rival country while publicly contemplating a run against the president who had appointed him.
Within two days, the street outside the Wangfujing McDonald’s had been almost entirely blocked by out-of-nowhere “street repair” construction hoardings. The following Sunday, when the next Jasmine march was supposed to take place, almost no demonstrators appeared in Wangfujing. Instead there were large numbers of foreign reporters and tourists, and countless hundreds of security forces. Jasmine demonstrators in Shanghai mustered a larger showing that day, but that turned out to be a high-water mark. By late February, the Jasmine “movement” was on its way to being decisively shut down.
My wife and I were in China, mainly Beijing, through February and March, so we had a chance to see how this movement tentatively built itself and was then quelled, at least for a while. One of the realities hardest to convey about modern China (and Atlantic readers know that I certainly have tried over the years) is how life there can be simultaneously so wide-open and so tightly controlled. In most of the country and for most people’s pursuits, this Chinese Winter that followed an Arab Spring left life looking normal. The economy kept growing; farmers worried about their crops and students about their tests; engineers designed new high-speed rail lines. I was in China mainly to report on the country’s big high-tech ambitions, and there was absolutely nothing about my interviews or factory visits that was not business as usual.
Yet for those in China who defined their business as involving politics of any sort, the pressure was intense. First, in February, a large number of the country’s human-rights and public-interest lawyers (yes, they exist) were arrested or detained, or were disappeared, in the style of Pinochet’s Chile. Once they were gone, people they might have represented and defended—writers, professors, bloggers, activists of many sorts—were arrested or made to disappear too. The Nobel Committee expressed concern not just that the most recent recipient of the Peace Prize, the civil-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, was still imprisoned but that they had not heard anything from him for months. “Signs of tightening control have been visible for several years,” Joshua Rosenzweig, a human-rights official in Hong Kong, wrote in March. “But the authorities are now employing a range of new, illegal methods to silence their critics … Most terrifying of all is the way in which enforced disappearance appears to have become almost routine.”
Apart from Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese activist best known around the world is the artist Ai Weiwei. Inside China he had, among other causes, sought investigations into the lax building standards that led to thousands of schoolchildren’s deaths in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. On April 3 of this year, as he was about to board a plane in Beijing for Hong Kong, he was detained too. Eventually he was charged with tax evasion, and remained in legal jeopardy even after his release in June. “If the authorities can detain a figure of such stature arbitrarily and hold him incommunicado as long as they want with no access to family or legal counsel, then no one in China is safe from the whims and anxieties of those in power,” Wei Jingsheng, who himself had served 15 years in prison for political crimes before being released to the United States in the 1990s, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor after the arrest.
I realize that a chronicle of such cases becomes tedious, especially with unfamiliar names. But every day, new names appeared—on foreign news sites, not in the Chinese press—along with other illustrations of a society politically closing up and cracking down. Conferences with international attendees were canceled at the last minute. So too, with one day’s notice, was a prestigious annual debate tournament, among teams from 16 leading Chinese universities. The topic, a reconsideration of the ideals set out for China a century ago in the revolution that overthrew the last Qing emperor, in 1911, was deemed too sensitive. Foreign journalists were one by one called in “for tea,” code for a cautionary talk with security officials. Usually the officials warned that the journalists would be expelled if they violated “rules”—some newly imposed, some long on the books but not enforced—requiring advance official permission before interviewing Chinese citizens.
Church meetings were disrupted. Members of “sensitive” ethnic groups—Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs, Inner Mongolians, all of whose home districts had been scenes of ongoing protest—came in for special scrutiny. One day in March, major boulevards in Beijing suddenly were lined with older women, bundled up in overcoats and with red armbands identifying them as public-safety patrols, who sat on stools at 20-yard intervals and kept watch for disruption. They had no practical effect except as reminders that the authorities were on guard and in control.
During the earliest stages of the Arab Spring, the mainstream Chinese media virtually ignored its existence. Then, as the drama in Egypt became un-ignorable, coverage in China emphasized the dangerous chaos and excesses. Then the theme became: whether or not such upheaval made sense for anyone else, it was the wrong way for China and would jeopardize the country’s hard-won gains. Global Times, a nationalist paper, said of Western protests about Ai Weiwei’s arrest: “The West’s behavior aims at disrupting the attention of Chinese society and attempts to modify the value system of the Chinese people.”
In a way, the most surprising and thoroughgoing change in Chinese daily life was in access to the Internet. As I wrote in these pages three years ago (“The Connection Has Been Reset,” March 2008), the genius of China’s Internet censorship has been its flexible repression. The filtering system known officially as Golden Shield and unofficially as the Great Firewall made finding unauthorized material just difficult enough that the great majority of Chinese citizens wouldn’t bother. Meanwhile, enough loopholes and pressure valves remained open that people who really cared about escaping its confines always could. A very significant loophole took the form of the government’s blind eye toward VPNs—“Virtual Private Networks,” which gave anyone willing to spend a dollar or two a week safe passage through the Great Firewall. You signed up for a VPN service, you made your connection, and from that point on you prowled the Internet just as if you were logged on from London or New York.