This past week was, by any measure, an interesting week in China.
Last Saturday, May 4th, Chengdu residents planned, after days of online mobilization, to have a “stroll” in a downtown area protesting an oil refinery and petrochemical plant known as the PX project to be built in Pengzhou, about 30 kilometers away from the city. People worried about pollution and also the possibility of an earthquake disaster since the project is located on the same earthquake-active strip as Beichuan, the epicenter of the devastating 2008 earthquake. The protest didn’t materialize because China’s stability maintenance machine went to work in full gear. It was a rare, all-out display, and NPR’s Louisa Lim has a good report on how:
“At the appointed hour and location for would-be protesters — a covered bridge at the city center — at least five different kinds of security forces were on patrol. Police patrolled in pairs, with plainclothes police out in force and a fire engine handily parked down the street. At a nearby teahouse, several dozen anti-riot police dozed in their full gear, plastic handcuffs dangling from their vests, ready to spring into action should the need arise. Trucks of paramilitary police circled the town, while police patrolled university campuses.
The main square — overseen by a huge statue of Chairman Mao — was closed to visitors, with police officers stationed every 20 feet around its periphery. Though China now spends more on domestic security than on its military, such a citywide show of force is unprecedented.
The tentacles of the stability-maintenance machine go deep, and all of them swung into action in Chengdu. A woman who’d forwarded a message about the protest on social media was forced to apologize on television earlier in the week. At least 10 dissidents were put under house arrest or forced to ‘go on holiday,’ according to a local human rights website. Meanwhile, employees at state-run work units were warned that they’d be sacked if they protested.
Then there was an enormous leafleting campaign. Households received letters from the government calling for ‘everyone to stand firm and not believe rumors, and not participate [in protests] in order to prevent people with other motives from seizing this opportunity to create turmoil.’ The letters had the unintended effect of bringing the Pengzhou plant to the attention of those who hadn’t already heard about it, creating an even greater groundswell of suppressed discontent.”
Then on Wednesday, May 8th, hundreds of migrant workers—mostly garment vendors from Anhui province—gathered outside Jingwen Building (京温大厦) in the south part of Beijing demanding justice for a girl who died on May 3. The girl, also a migrant worker from Anhui, had allegedly been raped by security guards of the building, thrown off the building from the 6th floor, and died. The police insisted that she committed suicide, but the protesters weren’t convinced. Request by family to disclose the building’s security video recording was rejected. All sorts of rumors swirled online about who the boss of this building is, and about guards fleeing the scene.
All the opacity and commotion is amazing, given that this is such a simple case without any political complication. More amazing was the show of force at the scene. Some posted photos of a large number of police cars and different kinds of police forces, and others reported traffic lockdown in much of the city’s south side and sightings of helicopters (more photos of force deployment here).
The day after, on May 9, NPR’s Louisa Lim “counted 20 buses each carrying 50 policemen in case of trouble, not counting police on streets” around the Jingwen Building.
One netizen observed that “as far as I know, today’s protest at the south 3rd ring road in Beijing is the largest, and the police deployment the heaviest, since 1989,” while others commented that if the government had to use such force to deal with a protest of this size and this nature, “going forward, how are they going to play their game?”
All I can say is that, in today’s China, it will take only 1/20 of the size of the Tian’anmen Square protest twenty-four years ago for tanks and machine guns to roll into Beijing, and that is, without one minute of delay.
Also on Wednesday, three of the four activists (one on bail for poor health), who had been detained for displaying banners in the Xidan commercial district in Beijing on March 31 demanding asset disclosure by officials, were charged with “illegal assembly” and formally arrested. A trial is expected, and the three could face up to five years in prison. There are at least another twelve in Beijing, Jiangxi and Guangdong, who have been detained for similar reasons.
On Thursday, Xinhua News Agency reported that the State Internet Information Office canceled one Weibo account (@萧山君子) and suspended another (@何兵) for “deliberately spreading rumors.” Scores Weibo accounts are deleted every days, but these two are so-called “Big Vs,” Weibo accounts with a large number of followers.
I’m not sure who @萧山君子is except that he or she has over 110,000 followers. He Bing (何兵) is a professor of law at China University of Political Science and Law, and his Weibo account has more than 460,000 followers. The rumor in question is that a university graduate stabbed to death an official in charge of communications regulation in Guizhou province over a website shutdown.
Just days ago on May 2, the State Internet Information Office announced plans to crack down on internet “rumormongering,” singling out “Big V” accounts for their power to relay messages and posts.
Many see the shutdown of the two accounts as the beginning of a systematic effort to take out and deter online criticism. Meanwhile, one must remember that these are accounts maintained by people who are tolerated enough by the government to maintain an account at all. Some of the best known dissidents and activists have not been able to set up, or maintain, accounts without being shut down promptly and repeatedly, each time losing all of their previous posts and followers. In other words, China is taking internet cleansing one step further now to curb criticism and to stunt its power to edify and mobilize.
On Friday, May 10th, law professor Zhang Xuezhong (张雪忠) of East China University of Political Science and Law revealed on his Weibo account (@新常识2016) that a directive from the central government is being circulated in his university to prohibit faculties from speaking to students about seven topics, or the “seven don’t talks” (七不讲), and they are: universal values, press freedom, civil society, civil rights, the Party’s past mistakes, the-powerful-and-the-privileged class, and judiciary independence.
Professors Zhang was promptly attacked for spreading “false rumors” (note how it is an all-purpose accusation) but his post was confirmed by Wang Jiangsong (王江松), a very well-known scholar and a professor at China Institute of Industrial Relations. Earlier on May 8, another scholar Yao Jianfu (姚监复) told Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, that a CCP central committee document about the “seven don’t talks” was being leaked.
Professor Zhang Xuezhong’s Weibo account has since been deleted.
China watchers may still remember the “Five Nos” enunciated by the then chairman of the National People’s Congress Wu Bangguo (吴邦国), that is: no multi-party election, no diversified guiding principles, no separation of powers, no federal system, and no privatization.
Altogether, this week’s events paint a rather telltale picture about the state of China’s rulers, their sense of crisis, and their assessment of China’s political situation. As for the Chinese Dream, I heard that kindergarteners and primary school kids are being taught of it as well.
Sunday, May 12, will be the fifth anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake, another “sensitive”day, because all the questions about those tofu-dreg school buildings that buried over 5,000 children have not been answered. Then it will be June 4th, the 24th anniversary of Tian’anmen Square massacre, the most sensitive day of all. Fast approaching is the time when, in China, each day will be a touchy, nerve-racking day, and every black dot the shadow of an enemy.