Protests in China

(Community Matters) Reprinted with permission from Stratfor

While the so-called Jasmine protests of Feb. 20 did not manifest significant force or a high degree of cohesion, they could have been an attempt to start a broad-based movement in China. If so, it will be important to monitor if and how such a movement might evolve nationwide. The social and economic change that China has experienced in the recent past and will no doubt see in the coming years could unify the masses, regardless of respective grievances, and could lead to larger, more disruptive events.

The Feb. 20 “Jasmine” protests in China turned out to be relatively mild and raised questions as to how they were organized and what their specific purpose was. Still, the fact that they brought together many people with different grievances in a variety of locations across the country under the banner of general political reform — for the first time since Tiananmen Square — suggests the potential for further development.


Following the so-called Jasmine demonstrations that occurred Feb. 20 in several cities across China, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, STRATFOR noticed the gatherings occurred in cities other than the 13 listed in the anonymous call for protests published Feb. 19 by North Carolina-based In particular, Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, saw gatherings that may have involved hundreds of people, and residents of other cities, including Urumqi, Xining, Fuzhou and Anshan, went to appointed places of gathering at the same time demonstrations were being held in Beijing and Shanghai, two cities included in the Boxun list. (Boxun was founded by Chinese expatriate Watson Meng and is banned in China.)

While no protests were reported in Urumqi, Xining, Fuzhou or Anshan, that people tried to assemble in those cities suggests they had been informed of the planned events through channels other than Boxun. Some have even posted messages on Boxun’s message board saying they had shown up but that there were too few people at the gatherings to stage a real demonstration. It appears some groups of people, including elderly Chinese concerned about land seizures — who are less likely to circumvent Chinese censors and gain access to banned foreign websites — appeared at the designated sites, raising questions about how they could have been informed.

There are also questions about the events themselves. They were more like public gatherings than actual protests. There were no banners, posters or flags, just people milling about, talking among themselves and to passers-by. The messages circulating in China calling for people to come out directed them to the appointed places and instructed them primarily to exchange opinions with others. It remains unclear who sent the messages and organized the gatherings — Boxun claims it only forwarded the Feb. 19 call for protests — and whether people were also told not to engage in aggressive protest behavior.

In the era of the Internet, and with a more open political environment in China, political discussion is not as sensitive as it was under Mao Zedong or immediately after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. Although there is still tight media censorship, it is not uncommon for people to judge or criticize the government in casual conversation. There is more freedom for people to get together and discuss political reform, and such events often take the form of salons, lectures or “triangle” gatherings, in which people regularly assemble in a designated public area at a fixed time. In most cases, a member of the “independent intelligentsia” chairs the meeting and allows small groups to participate and exchange opinions.

These types of gatherings are designed to teach about democracy and Western-style political institutions, and they have become quite popular in China in the past five years or so. Normally the events are cautiously carried out in a calm atmosphere, in part to avoid attracting attention from the authorities and in part to avoid provoking public antipathy toward liberal ideas and political change. This practice is also congruous with the characteristics of the Chinese intelligentsia, which tends to be idealistic, concerned about the country’s path and future, and to believe it has a responsibility to inspire the public. Although the meetings are sometimes scrutinized by the Public Security Bureau, they are usually approved as long as they are conducted in a peaceful manner and the topics are not too sensitive.

While more aggressive protests do occur in China, they are usually carried out by certain groups that share the same specific grievances and have a single issue they care most about, such as government land seizures, employees of state-owned enterprises being laid off due to corporate privatizations or food safety. However, protests calling for broad political reform are still rare in China.

Another curious characteristic of the Jasmine gatherings is that they occurred simultaneously in different provinces and regions. That they were inspired by a call to protest posted on a U.S.-based website, generated low turnout and appeared leaderless suggests that foreign organizations or Chinese dissidents abroad who have access to domestic networks may have organized the gatherings. Most Chinese dissidents living overseas were supporters of democracy during the 1970s who lived through during the Cultural Revolution or were exiled following Tiananmen Square.

Once more organized during two major democratic waves in China, the overseas-based Chinese dissident movement is now quite fractured. Today there are more than 30 overseas pro-democracy organizations, such as the New York-based China Democratic Party and the Paris-based Federation for a Democratic China, and they are frequently merging or collapsing. They also struggle over the movement’s leadership role and often suffer from personnel conflicts and funding problems, which tend to take precedence over promoting their political beliefs. Naturally, this undermines their ability to stage significant political action in China and elsewhere. Nonetheless, some individuals known for their past experience in democratic protests and for their personal influence, such as Tiananman student leader Wang Dan and writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, can have a considerable impact on democratic movements in China.

In addition to overseas democratic movements that have shaped domestic opinion in China, particularly after 1989, domestic democratic movements have been increasingly active in the past five years, thanks to the Internet and increasing political openness. Today there are three categories of dissidents that are generally considered the most politically active in China, and the most susceptible to influence from Western-style movements:

  • Political dissidents: Most of the people in this category have respectable occupations — some are lawyers, journalist or university professors — and have similar backgrounds or shared experiences as pro-democracy advocates domestically or abroad. Their political views lead them to exchange opinions in certain web forums or at small political gatherings. This group, unlike many foreign democratic movements, appears to be more coherent, although many may live in different cities and regions. Their role in small political gatherings or on web forums could enable them to organize larger events or more formal gatherings, or help them access overseas resources to raise their status and influence. Many of them are closely monitored by the authorities and some, such as Noble Peace Prize recipient Liu, have been arrested.
  • College students and other educated citizens: Similar in composition to those who participated in the Tiananmen protests, this category consists of Chinese who are idealistic about China’s future and may even have political aspirations. People in this category tend to believe political reform is the best approach. In China, one should never underestimate the people’s appreciation of Western values, and this is particularly true in well-known universities and among the highly educated. Some universities that specialize in the social sciences are well known for their culture of liberalism, and students who graduate from these schools are more likely to be politically active.In China, highly educated people are more likely to seek out alternative sources of information rather than accept the official version of events. This reflects an emerging trend of distrust in the government and approval of foreign sources of information once they become available. None of this is meant to suggest that this group necessarily resents central authority or is willing to try and topple it, since its members are not as hardened as some of the more experienced dissidents. But concerning China’s future, this is a group that tends to believe Western-style political reforms would serve China better than the current system.
  • The third category consists of ordinary citizens who have specific grievances that are usually personal or economic. After China introduced its opening-up policy and its transition toward a free-market economy in the 1990s, people were given more freedom to pursue their own economic interests. As a result, economics rather than politics become the central national concern. For ordinary Chinese who earn a decent living but do not have much knowledge of or involvement in politics, democratic movements make little sense. In fact, they may fear such involvement could threaten their lives or financial status.However, China’s dramatic socio-economic development over the past 20 years came at the expense of a number of people who either lost their jobs due to state-owned enterprise reform, their land because of government seizures, or family members and friends because of corporate misdeeds such as the baby-milk scandal. Deep grievances over these issues cause people to stage protests against the government, and these people typically make aggressive political appeals. Still, they tend to focus solely on their specific concerns, harbor no grand aspirations for political reform and often can be quickly pacified by subsidies or other forms of compensation.

While the so-called Jasmine protests of Feb. 20 did not manifest significant force or a high degree of cohesion, they could have been an attempt to start a broad-based movement in China. If so, it will be important to monitor if and how such a movement might evolve nationwide. The social and economic change that China has experienced in the recent past and will no doubt see in the coming years could unify the masses, regardless of respective grievances, and could lead to larger, more disruptive events.

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