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 locations in the country – a McDonald’s on the popular Wangfujing pedestrian mall in downtown Beijing and Shanghai’s People’s Park.
Last Sunday, Wangfujing 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 appear 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 leaving curious pedestrians wondering 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 today, they’ve named 55 locations in 41 cities, all of them popular gathering places such as a Starbucks in Guangzhou and in front of the statue of Mao Zedong in Chengdu.
“The Chinese government is its own worst enemy,” said Pei Minxin, a Chinese-born political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. “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 “Jasmine Revolution,” so named in homage to the Middle East 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.
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.
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, 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 handful of obvious participants and a larger crowd of media, security and onlookers.
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.