Tuesday, June 19, 2018
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'Call me if there's a revolution'

Jasmine RevolutionBy Melissa Chan

That's what I told my friend, also a journalist, as he headed to central Beijing. I did not go. Not because I've become a lackadaisical journalist, but because I was pretty certain nothing would happen and that it would be a waste of my Sunday afternoon (instead, I started reading Richard McGregor's book, The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers).

On Twitter and China's more popular microblog Sina Weibo, users were reposting calls to gather across 13 major cities in China to protest and kick off a so-called "Jasmine Revolution", clearly inspired by the events in North Africa and the Middle East over the past few weeks.  It's unclear where this plan initiated - but what is clear is that none of the usual suspects from China's activist and human rights community knew much about the march - some expressing doubt, others simply reposting the plan to gather at squares and city hot spots.

Never mind the culprit though - police officers peremptorily swept in and rounded up at least a dozen dissidents overnight. Sina Weibo censors kicked in, and any tweets referencing jasmines were deleted. There were unconfirmed reports that students at some universities were told they could not leave campus for the day. In some cities, online users told of a greater show of police on the streets.

So at 2 pm sharp, there was no congregation of Chinese - but quite a congregation of journalists and police waiting for this imaginary revolution.

Over the past few weeks, as country after country witnessed protests, there has been a China subtext, with many people wondering if the same thing that happened in Egypt could happen in China. This question was especially asked by many with the news that China's Sina Weibo had apparently started censoring searches for the word "Egypt".

Here's why I think China won't be having a revolution anytime soon:

-- The government knows how Twitter and Facebook work and have a sophisticated system of censorship, supported by an army of people and software. This means there really isn't a means for anyone to organise protests here the way the students did in Egypt with online tools. Anything of the sort would be deleted almost immediately after posting.

-- Speaking of students, Chinese students would probably riot if you took away their iPhones with the Angry Birds computer game on it, sooner than they would rise up to demand greater human rights.  This is because college students are privileged.  Most of them grew up in cities, where their parents paid tutors to supplement their education so they could do well in the all-important high school examination that got them into university in the first place.  They are comfortable and middle-class, and have too much to lose to bother rabble rousing.

-- People in China have a lot to complain about. But consider the many Americans who complain about how their country is going downhill these days. It's not quite the same, but it's a good enough comparison to give you a better idea of how dissatisfied people here are with their government. In other words - people will complain, but few would actually do anything to change the system, because the system is just good enough. Most people have food, shelter, clothing, the basics - and still remember a time when things in China were much poorer.

-- The revolution did happen. In 1989. And it failed, with the People's Liberation Army tanks and guns firing on civilians.  Back then, the Chinese government had let the demonstrations get out of hand, with some officials sympathising with protesters' calls for reform. Sympathy or no sympathy today, leaders have learned their lesson and they will never let anything get out of hand like that again.

So you might ask... why does all the news out of China seems to always talk about repression, dissatisfied people, worker protests, and the whole lot that suggests this is a country on the brink?

The best way I can explain it is partly the nature of news - that old adage that "no news is good news".  As a journalist, I sometimes worry about all the focus on negative news - and we do occasionally try to bring you a fun, uplifting report. But part of the purpose of our jobs, I think, is to hold truth to power and play a watchdog role in the countries we cover.  Otherwise, how can institutions and governments improve and thereby improve the lives of ordinary people?

And the other part of the explanation, is that the gross human rights violations, protests, and injustices which occur in this country happen to a small minority of the 1.3 billion people here. As I have mentioned already - people here complain, but they're usually not so worked up about it to actually do anything. China is a place where the rule of law is weak. But what this means is that if you're an ordinary person, just like an ordinary person anywhere else, you will not likely in your lifetime see the inside of a courtroom or a police station or feel the need to retain a lawyer. Life is humdrum with its natural ups and downs for most.

So the big problem is little rule of law. Many of the stories we do on the road go down to there being little rule of law, and it's an issue with the potential to prevent China from ever becoming a great, stable and progressive power.  But this is another story, a big topic for another time.

For now, I'll just leave with the anecdote tweeted by McClatchy Newspaper's Tom Lasseter, who did swing over Sunday afternoon to check up on things:

"Watching large crowd of cameras following around the police, young woman in Dior sunglasses asked me if there was a celebrity" or something.

And for more on the actual incident, check out this posting on China Geeks.

Melissa Chan is Al Jazeera's correspondent based in China.

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