Yeah, the Twitter revolution is up for debate, but the "Jasmine Revolution" is really on shaky ontological ground. Or maybe not.
A large number of silent protesters may or may not have gathered yesterday outside of a McDonalds at Wangfujing, a commercial street not far from Beijing's Tiananmen Square, as a result of a campaign over sites like Twitter, but not Twitter alone, which is of course blocked by China. A protest slogan that circulated online, starting on the US-based site Boxun, began with the lines, "We want food, we want work, we want housing."
To be certain: the hundreds of people at Wangfujing were joined by nearly as many police officers. Some people were detained, including, reportedly, a number of prominent bloggers. The words "Jasmine Revolution," borrowed from the successful Tunisian revolt, were blocked on microblogging sites and on Internet search engines; cellphone users were prevented from sending out text messages to multiple recipients. The fear of the authorities was palpable.
But the commotion, and the speed at which news of it traveled, begs a question that applies to all kinds of network-mediated events – an inverse of the old "if a tree falls in the forest" conundrum: if a protest movement begins on the Internet, and the police don't show up to stop it and the cameras don't capture it, does the "movement" exist?
The Communist Party doesn't have the luxury of standing by and waiting and seeing. So out go the plain clothes officers, who stick out like sore thumbs at public gatherings: they're the ones with the sad faces and dark clothes and bad haircuts.
But more often than not, for now, the protesters still have the invisibility and deniability of a distributed network. One blogger, 明睿, translated by Transpacifica, recounts the whole thing as if he has no clue what's going on, just a lowly student who happened to be there:
I was just studying in front of McDonalds, and unable to concentrate, I realized several police cars and some police officers had shown up. Then, out of the crowd came a team of people [police] who suddenly dispersed, some standing nearby and others at a distance.
I tried my best to concentrate, but soon there arrived a group of photographers.
Later, more people came and stood at the door of the McDonalds, and quite a few more police showed up. The police presence gradually grew, and the crowd gradually dispersed…
Why would people stop to watch an unusual number of police? The People's Police love the people; the people love the People's Police? [This I believe is a play on a slogan.] When I was taking pictures, someone hit me in the head. How could whoever did this be so audacious as to attack people [renmin] in front of almost 100 police. And how could the People's Police turn a blind eye?
If you know the truth, please don't say it. Let people live with their illusions.
The winks by this student – he probably is a student – are as obvious as the interest of his camera, in the photos that he took, above and at Picasa. A less sarcastic blogger, translated by Sinocentric, described the scene outside of the McDonald's proudly, due to the number of young people who showed up:
Two people, about 20 years old, stood in front of me were very excited and said people had prepared banners but had not been able to open them up; then they said the power of the internet is really huge. Outside, one girl asked me why so many people were gathered together, to which I just replied 'Jasmine Revolution', and immediately had two Irish journalists ask me how I knew about it and what I thought of it. I said, 'this was going to happen sooner or later'; I was quickly seen by the police and ended the conversation; the journalists then went into McDonalds and started to interview an old person who looked like an intellectual.
I feel that this internet-organized 'Jasmine revolution' was extremely successful. It's a good sign. It shows that the internet will lead in the struggle between innovation and conservatism. Just one blocked message on boxun and five or six hundred people will take part; when you add on police and journalists, it's seven or eight hundred. What if ten or 100 websites posted this kind of news?
Maybe the combination of social media and pseudoevents points a surreal way forward for public dissent in China in the web era: organizers needn't actually gather people, as Falun Gong supporters quietly but visibly did in the late 1990s around the capital, at the movement's eventual peril, and as occasionally happens today, in gatherings of petitioners and others that are often promptly shut down by scores of police.
Instead, they can simply spread word about a protest via one of China's networking sites, then wait for the police – along with the journalists, and perhaps a few sympathizers with cameras – to show up and shut down something that isn't even there. You don't just get a "protest"; you get a display of fear by the government. Do it again, and the number of "protests" grows, along with the number of police. Repeat.
The government's best weapon is the one they've been using for years better than anyone else: the untold thousands of internet police who patrol message boards and social networking sites and who can block a website nearly at will. Should the Chinese government ever decide to turn off the Internet in a bigger way, Egypt-style, it won't be that hard. It would also be the ultimate sign of fear, and arguably eliminate the best tracking tool a government could want, so it might also be stupid.
But blocking some sites and phone messages, even for a short time, may still be China's most effective way of squashing communication. Online, news of the "protests" spread like wildfire, but extinguished itself just as quickly. Here's how a Chinese friend in Beijing described the whole thing, from her web-only vantage point:
It was more a media event, we tweet crazily about it on weibo (sina microblog), the internet police crashed it down. and now after a day, there's no trace of it on the internet, and people go back to tweeting funny pictures etc. etc
The slogan that started this – about food, work and housing – indicates that the cracks at the seams of China's powerful rise are getting wider, and through them are visible a growing number of examples of people elsewhere demanding something more. But China isn't Egypt. if the Chinese government can keep up the pace of economic growth that keeps people fed – and keeps the feeds of funny pictures flowing – it will be very hard to poke.