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In the morning, a speech by the premier. In the afternoon, police crack down

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By Tom Lasseter

McClatchy Newspapers

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."

Can China's police state tactics, censorship and economic growth stop wide unrest? For now, probably

   
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A policeman surrounded by cameras at Wangfujing last Sunday

On February 1, we ran a story about a controversial Chinese New Year's video greeting card -- a world in which cartoon rabbits (this year's zodiac sign) stage a revolt against their government after a series of tragedies that closely resembled real-life happenings in China.

I wondered about the people involved with making the video, and got in touch with Hutoon Animation here in Beijing.

Wang Bo, Hutoon’s manager and the director of the bunny cartoon, had told me by phone that “Because our society is very complicated, this video can be understood in many ways.”

But one of the designers who worked on the project, a 26-year-old named Zeng Zhi, was a bit more direct in our interview at Hutoon's offices: "There's an old saying in Chinese that even rabbits will bite people when they get angry."

That remark came back to me this afternoon as I passed by the Wangfujing Street shopping area, the scene last Sunday of a crowd of journalists, police, curious onlookers and a very few people who'd come to protest against the Chinese government. The same U.S.-based website (boxun.com) that carried a call for that gathering last week has posted another one for tomorrow.

So, how likely is it that the sort of unrest that's plagued Arab governments will be visited upon the Chinese Communist Party? Most China observers think the chances are slim.

Why?

For one thing, China's government is very, very good at using police state tactics.

I spent some time in the western city of Urumqi earlier this month, and came away thinking it's a showcase of sorts for the tools used by the regime here when confronted by problems (in the case of Urumqi, ethnic unrest). The density of surveillance cameras, police and a general atmosphere of fear and uncertainty prompted one man, sitting in his own living room, to say that "Someone may be listening on the other side of any wall here. We must think of our own safety."

In the virtual world, the Chinese Communist Party has also not only developed some of the most sophisticated Internet censorship software in the world, but it's made clear a few times lately that it wants those controls to be even tighter. There's been no small amount of recent propaganda about the importance of minding the official line for the greater good.

But it wasn't my trip to Urumqi, the experience of watching police flood into Wangfujing last Sunday or announcements by the government that it intends to keep order that suggested to me that widespread tumult isn't coming anytime soon.

Instead, it was a reporting trip to Henan Province, where Foxconn is opening a new factory. Yes, that Foxconn -- the one in the news last year for worker suicides at its Shenzhen facility.

I spent a couple days speaking with people at job recruitment fairs in the city of Zhengzhou. The people I interviewed  were not ecstatic about going to work on a Foxconn assembly line, but they did see it as an improvement over scratching out a living as a farmer or having to travel hundreds of miles as a migrant laborer.

The young men and women spoke about hard lives in villages and towns all over the province, and they all seemed pretty content about getting a factory job.

That sense of progress was painfully absent from places like Egypt or Libya. For now, it's probably enough to keep a cap on the many deep wells of frustration in China -- the social ills of corruption, the wide gap between rich and poor, etc.

Going forward, though, the government in Beijing will not only have to continue managing those sources of discontent, but it'll also have to maintain what is arguably the world's most robust economy and keep more and better jobs coming. A tough task, to say the least. 

 

Under construction on Wangfujing: China's reaction to protest attempts

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Last Sunday, the McDonald's at the Wangfujing Street shopping area in Beijing was the scene of a planned protest that wasn't really a protest. As has been widely reported, the crowd was made up mostly of journalists, police and curious onlookers.

Despite the very low numbers of protestors, the Chinese government has spent most of the past week trying to make sure it doesn't happen again -- Internet restrictions, already extremely tight, have been taken up several notches. Attempts to search for anything related to the event became pretty much impossible without special software.

But in addition to cyber tactics,  the Chinese government has also apparently resorted to simpler measures: rows of trees in front of part of the Wangfujing McDonald's, and a new construction site stretching down the street. Signs say the road is being repaired, though there's not much evidence of that happening yet.

The same U.S.-based website that carried the first call for "Jasmine Revolution" protests -- the name a nod to unrest that overthrew the president in Tunisia -- has posted another one calling for an ongoing series of "strolls" in cities across China.

We'll see what happens this Sunday.

Update: Jordan Pouille, another Beijing journalist, posted several pictures of Wangfujing here.

China and unrest in the Arab world

I recently did a podcast interview about "What Beijing hears in Egypt's revolution" (using Russia as a sort of triangulated point of comparison). The conversation can be found by clicking here.

For many people watching the events unfold on Tahrir Square in Egypt during the past several weeks, there's been a quick flashback to Tiananmen Square in 1989 -- the spectacle of an ocean of protestors confronting an authoritarian regime and its tanks.

Other parallels floated around news analysis pieces and blogs -- Egypt's 1952 revolution was billed domestically as a victory against Western imperialist forces. The secular nationalist government of Hosni Mubarak, the third* in line after that revolt, slid into very deep corruption and became a regime held in place by at times brutal suppression of its own people. Political challenges were, to say the least, not encouraged. Above all else, Mubarak said that stability had to be maintained and he was the man to do it.

China's 1949 revolution was also seen as triumph over imperialist subjugation. Today's China has serious problems with corruption. And need one spell out the ways in which the Chinese government emphasizes stability and discourages political variety?

It's worth mentioning that beyond the question of corruption, the list of issues lurking beneath China's economic boom is a long one:

There are profound shortcomings with rule of law. There is growing discontent about the country's massive gap between rich and poor. It is a society with little recourse for those who have been wronged by big companies or government officials. Attempts at political dissent are not tolerated. Life in the countryside can be particularly bleak. The details of the history of the Chinese Communist Party itself are tightly controlled. Public pressure release valves, even in the coded guise of cartoons, are slammed shut by censors. 

So ... Mubarak has been toppled. Could the People's Republic of China go the same way as the Arab Republic of Egypt?

For now, not likely. Why? Give us a listen

* I'm not counting the first president, Mohammed Naguib, because he was quickly pushed aside by Gamal Nasser.



 

A postcard from the Year of the Rabbit

 

The New Year's Eve fireworks in China are unlike anything I've ever seen. It's hard to put into words -- fireworks blossoming overhead, raining down in the distance, rocketing in every direction.

Here in Beijing, the pyrotechnics streak across highrise office buildings and skip down narrow alleyways. You see a guy walk into the middle of the road, plop down the sort of giant fireworks cannister one normally associates with the Super Bowl, and then casually light the fuse -- often with a cigarette. A few minutes later, it happens again. Get into a cab, and you have to pause every few minutes because something, in the sulfurous fog, is shooting a wall of sparks in the street in front of you.

It is totally disorganized. It is a wild and joyous display.

After eating many, many dumplings last night, Meg and I walked with friends to our old neighborhood of HouHai. Colors from the fireworks bounced off the frozen lake. Couples held hands as their faces were illuminated by one flash after the other. A buddy of mine was ice skating out there, under the bursts and booms.

Someone lit a long string of firecrackers and threw it in the air, letting loose a shower of fire and noise a bit too close for comfort. Everybody just laughed and turned to watch the horizon for more.

China shows video in Qian Yunhui case. Questions remain. Chinese netizens furious.

It was supposed to be slam dunk evidence that proved the government's contention that rural activist Qian Yunhui was killed in a traffic accident, and not murdered by men in uniform.

But when a video allegedly captured by a camera hidden in Qian's watch was aired on Tuesday, it left much to be explained. 

Hundreds of Chinese Internet users posted their thoughts within an hour of a broadcast on state TV. The comments, almost all of which revolved around the idea that the video was a fake, began to pour in so quickly that it was hard to keep up. Their tone was striking:

"Sorry, but we already don’t trust the government," said a user in Henan Province.

The video, said a poster from Guangdong Province, seemed designed to "make fools of us all. Do you think all people are 3-year-olds?"

An apparent bit of sarcasm from Shandong Province: "It is just a normal traffic accident. I believe it now! Thank the party, thank the country"

From Inner Mongolia: "A million zeroes is only a group of zeroes, but if there is a '1' in front of them, the number will have meaning. A few hundred million farmers who have lost their land is not a group of zeroes who can be ignored. History will add a '1' in front of those at a proper time."

And from Beijing: "I don’t believe it. I only laughed at it."

More remarks like those continue to pile up even as I write this. [Update: By the time I got back from lunch, the comments above and hundreds more had been deleted from the Internet.]

The footage in question carried the correct time stamp, just before 9:50 on Christmas morning, and was obviously shot on the road where Qian died in the coastal province of Zhejiang. The video shows an accident -- or the tumbling blur of what seems to be one -- as the person walks in the middle of the road, and then after the wreck shows a truck sitting in front of the presumed body of Qian Yunhui.

However, Qian's body was found under the front tire of a truck -- not behind a truck that had run him over -- that was sitting on the wrong side of the road.

It is possible, of course, that the truck that hit Qian dragged him across the road before stopping. And it's also possible that one truck ran over him and his body came to rest under the front tire of a second truck that was close behind. As any highway patrol officer will tell you, anything can happen when it comes to the physics of car crashes. (Images of Qian's body after the incident, though, suggest that he was crushed by just the one tire, and don't show the sort of skid marks one would expect from a large truck slamming on its brakes and swerving violently across a road.)

Many locals believe that instead of a traffic collision, Qian was held down by a group of men as a truck ran him over. His death, they believe, was a brutal answer to his years of organizing protests against the construction of a local power plant on village land.

The video was broadcast during the ongoing trial of the driver of the truck that killed Qian, a man named Fei Liangyu, who's been charged with traffic violations. [Update: State media reported that Fei was sentenced to three and a half year in prison today.] Shortly before the trial began, a payment of 1.05 million yuan (more than $159,000) was made to Qian's family -- a very large sum in China.

While the nature and veracity of the video remain unclear, one thing is certain: There are a lot of angry Chinese people on the Internet who don't believe the evidence put forth by officials. One wonders what the authoritarian government in Beijing makes of that fact.

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Tom

"China Rises" is written by Tom Lasseter, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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