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Calls for subtle protests have China security forces in tizzy

Tweets calling for Sunday 'strolls' around China are an effective psychological weapon, sending security forces chasing at shadows.

March 05, 2011|By Barbara Demick and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
  • One of the policemen guarding the entrance to Wangfujing street in central Beijing last month points to a photographer. Police barred foreign reporters from the site of a planned anti-government protest amid the tightest security in the Chinese capital since the 2008 Olympic Games.
One of the policemen guarding the entrance to Wangfujing street in central… (How Hwee Young, EPA )

Reporting from Beijing — Whoever is sending out the mysterious tweets calling for regular Sunday afternoon "strolls" around China has come up with a highly effective psychological operation against the government, sending a paranoid security apparatus chasing at shadows.

The possibility that somebody might heed the coy calls to protest led Chinese security to virtually shut down some of the most heavily trafficked sites in the country: a McDonald's on the popular Wangfujing pedestrian mall in downtown Beijing and Shanghai's People's Park.

Wangfujing on Sunday had the feel of a Cold War spy novel, with shifty-eyed plain-clothed agents scanning the crowd and dozens of foreign reporters doing their best to remain incognito in fading sweatshirts and wool hats.

After roughing up one journalist and injuring several others, police cleared the area using a novel method: They deployed a battalion of street-cleaning trucks, preventing anybody from leaving or entering for more than an hour and causing curious pedestrians to wonder why authorities were cleaning the street on a sunny weekend afternoon.

The crackdown has only emboldened the organizers of the protests, who remain anonymous and appear to be operating from outside China. For this weekend, they've named 55 locations in 41 cities, all popular gathering places, such as a Starbucks in Guangzhou and a spot in front of the statue of Mao Tse-tung in Chengdu.

"The Chinese government is its own worst enemy," said Minxin Pei, a Chinese-born political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "You can see that the level of paranoia and insecurity at the top levels of the Chinese government is truly beyond what you would imagine."

What makes the 2 p.m. Sunday demonstrations so difficult to stop is that the organizers of the so-called jasmine revolution, so named in homage to the Middle East and North African uprisings, are simply asking people to come out and stroll, thus circumventing the bans on public protest in China.

"No shouting or slogans, just walking and smiling," read a statement signed "The Initiators of Chinese Jasmine Revolution" posted Tuesday.

"We invite every participant to stroll, watch or even just pretend to pass by. As long as you are present, the authoritarian government will be shaking with fear," read an earlier posting.

The technique of an innocuous stroll — san bu, or making steps was used in 2008 by Shanghai homeowners who objected to the building of a high-speed railway line and has since caught on among middle-class protesters who wish to express their grievances without facing arrest.

"The government is going crazy. It faces a high cost in trying to control this kind of demonstration because they don't know who their opponents are," said a Chinese blogger who asked not to be quoted by name because many of his peers have been arrested. "And it's safe for participants; they can just pretend they're out shopping for the day."

Although nary a word has appeared in the tightly controlled state press, information has spread via word of mouth in large part because managers of state companies have been warning their employees not to go out on Sunday afternoons, lest they stray into a protest location.

"Watch out for jasmine flowers. Don't create any trouble," an employee of a state company said he was told last week.

The calls for pro-democracy protests first appeared in mid-February on the U.S.-based Chinese-language website Boxun.com, which frequently hosts dissident writings. Although they were forwarded and reposted on microblogs in China, censors quickly deleted them and arrested people in China who were posting them.

The first gathering Feb. 20 drew only a few obvious participants and a larger crowd of journalists, security and onlookers, among them U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, who said later that he just happened to be passing by.

But a few days later, Chinese authorities got serious about the threatened protests. They began calling news bureaus in Beijing, telling foreign journalists they would not be permitted to go to the demonstration sites. And publicists should note: If there is one thing guaranteed to get journalists to turn out on their day off, it's telling them that they can't go.

The Foreign Ministry has since revived restrictions on foreign journalists that were rolled back at the time of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Journalists have been told in private sessions that they could lose their visas and be expelled if caught reporting on the scene of protests without permission.

At least one television crew was told that it couldn't film anywhere in China without permission in advance. Until this week, only Tibet was off limits for the foreign press.

"No law can protect [journalists] who make trouble," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters at a briefing Thursday.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a specialist in modern Chinese history at UC Irvine, said the Chinese government "has moments of great confidence and moments when it seems scared of its own shadow."

Speaking Thursday at a meeting here of foreign correspondents, he said, "There are moments when their public relations handling is very savvy, and other times you have to wonder, 'What are they thinking?' "

barbara.demick@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com

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