Stravinsky had his Rite of Spring; China’s Communist Party has its own. As the first warm(er) breezes blow, Internet connections slow and sometimes fizzle out entirely. And those known for civil rights activism can expect at least a knock on their door – maybe a warning, maybe a non-voluntary vacation in a remote locale where foreign journalists can’t interview them, maybe an unceremonious dragging out to an unmarked van and disappearance into the night.
Spring in Beijing brings the annual 10-day meeting of the National People’s Congress, which this year starts on March 5th. China’s leaders, and more to the point China’s security apparatus, views this as a “sensitive time,” a time when public opinion must be kept “harmonious.” That is to say, criticism of the Party’s record or style of governance, is to be silenced.
This year, that instinct has been turbo-charged by apparent jitters over pro-democracy revolutions and protests that have swept much of the Middle East. The day after former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, members of China’s Politboro met to discuss the implications. And last weekend, President Hu Jintao gave a speech to provincial-level Party cadre, telling them that China has to better control the internet and the ‘virtual society’ it has created, and more effectively ‘guide’ public opinion. In a country where more than 450 million people are now online, and accessing an ever wider range of views, that’s becoming ever more of a challenge.
So, in recent days and weeks, the Party – and the Public Security apparatus in particular – has fallen back on old habits. It has detained, beaten and/or harassed some 15 civil rights lawyers – two of whom, Tang Jitian and Jiang Tianyong, are still missing – for having met to figure out how to help their friend and fellow civil rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who’s being held under illegal house arrest in his village in Shandong province. When he managed to sneak out a video that showed the hired thugs keeping him and his wife from leaving their home, the thugs beat them both up. When journalists from The New York Times, CNN, and other media went to check out Chen’s situation, the thugs roughed them up too.
It was in this environment that a mysterious call went out over the weekend for Chinese to gather for simultaneous demonstrations in 13 cities, calling for “food, housing, jobs, fairness.” Inflation for food items in China has gone up at least 10 percent in the past year. Housing prices are soaring out of the reach of most Chinese, there’s a mismatch in the economy between skills and jobs available, and fairness? Not only does China have a huge and growing gap between the urban rich and rural poor, the courts are run by the Party, and those – like the civil rights lawyers who ask that the government honor and enforce China’s existing laws and Constitution – face a real risk of retribution.
In the end, not a whole lot of people – perhaps a few hundred — came out for China’s “Jasmine Protests.” One was detained for laying a jasmine flower on the soil of a potted plant outside a McDonald’s. But a whole lot of police did come out – which showed both that China’s public security apparatus is paying attention to the website that made the call for protests, and that it saw it as enough of a potential threat to mobilize far more police than there were protesters.
Ironically, neither China’s would-be Jasmine protestors, nor the lawyers who work quietly every day to push for more genuine adherence to rule of law, are calling for an overthrow of China’s government or Constitution. They’re calling for the Constitution to be upheld, for the government to walk the talk.
China is becoming a more pluralistic society, with citizens who increasingly feel they should have the right to comment on and, yes, criticize, the work of the government. At the same time, though, many Chinese are proud of China’s economic and political rise in the world. Many, perhaps most – including imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo – would rather have gradual evolution to a more democratic China than the political turbulence that has swept much of the Middle East. Odd, then, that the Party appears to feel so insecure about the level of true support it has at home, that even laying a jasmine flower in front of a McDonald’s is seen a threat to the State.