By Tom Lasseter
BEIJING _ Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Sunday held an online forum in which he promised to focus on making the lives of ordinary people in China more comfortable and secure.
Just a few hours later, thousands of Chinese police deployed in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities to clamp down on public gatherings after a second week of overseas Internet-based calls for protests across the country.
The combination of Wen’s comments about government efforts to raise living standards, accompanied by a display of China’s police state tactics aimed at squelching dissent, neatly laid out in one day’s time the Chinese Communist Party’s approach toward avoiding the kind of unrest seen across the Arab world.
In the morning, Wen pushed the official position of more stability and prosperity through one party rule. And in the afternoon, security personnel swarmed public spaces to be sure nobody suggested otherwise.
While a small band of protestors came together in Shanghai on Sunday, they were quickly dispersed by police. Authorities in Beijing went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that not only did no crowds form, but that journalists stayed away from the non-event.
There were more police present in uniform and undercover, some with canine units, than are called to handle bomb scares in many countries. Foreigners at the Wangfujing Street shopping area in central Beijing, the announced meeting site, were stopped at every turn and asked for their passports. Police or their surrogates took several western journalists away for questioning, turned back TV camera crews and reportedly shoved or assaulted at least three photographers.
In addition, water trucks rode up and down Wangfujing, spraying the road and sidewalk to keep people moving. Even street sweepers had evidently been told to discourage groups from forming; they hit bystanders’ feet with brooms and said “move” repeatedly.
During the week or so after postings began to appear on a U.S.-based Chinese language website, boxun.com, urging protests inspired by the “Jasmine Revolution” that unseated Tunisia’s president, Chinese security bureaus rounded up more than 100 activists.
The Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders, which documents such cases, released a statement on Friday saying “signs are emerging to indicate that the current crackdown may be one of the most severe actions taken by the government against Chinese activists in recent years.”
Wen, the premier, did not mention those events during his two-hour session of responding to carefully screened questions from the Chinese public on Sunday morning.
But he did make a series of remarks that seemed designed to address growing frustration among many in China about the gap between the nation’s haves and have-nots – a distinction often determined by relationships with those in power.
He announced that the government is lowering its economic growth goals slightly during the next five years as part of a shift to better focus on helping citizens.
Wen also pledged to fight against inflation, real estate speculation and corruption, all points of contention for everyday Chinese.
It wasn’t clear, however, how aggressive the government intends to be in addressing those issues. For instance, Wen said that China would aim for seven percent economic growth in its next five-year plan instead of the previous 7.5 percent – but that prior figure was itself all but disregarded during a period of relentless infrastructure construction across the nation.
“We should change the criteria for evaluating officials’ work,” Wen said. “The supreme criterion for assessing their performance is whether the people feel happy and satisfied, rather than skyscrapers.”
State media noted that Wen emphasized “to enhance the people's living standards is ‘our work's starting point as well as the final aim."