“A single spark can start a prairie fire,” Chairman Mao famously declared, and a collective of young mainland- and overseas-based Chinese activists are taking his words to heart, using high-tech crowd-rallying techniques to organize spontaneous demonstrations in dozens of cities across China. Judging by Beijing’s heavy-handed response, this new and evolving phenomenon clearly has the Communist leadership rattled.
The growing protest movement, inspired by the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, was launched with an announcement on the Chinese-language news site boxun.com, based in Durham, North Carolina, and for which we serve as translators. Boxun is part of a network of tech-savvy organizations inside and outside China pressing for social change. Its leading figures are veterans of Chinese pro-democracy movements going back to the anti-Gang of Four demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1976, the Democracy Wall Movement of 1978, and the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. This is the same coalition that helped initiate the Charter 08 effort three years ago that resulted in the imprisonment of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
The lesson from past crackdowns was to apply even more decentralized tactics. Today’s organizers — who seek to launch a “molihua” (jasmine) revolution — have used social networks like Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), Facebook and Google groups to spark public meetings in large cities in every province over the past two weeks.
In doing so organizers have tapped into a traditional method of crowd gathering known as wei guan. The words literally mean “surround and stare,” but they also connote a willingness to participate. It’s a kind of street democracy, with impromptu public juries declaring their binding verdicts on how civic disputes should be resolved, refusing to allow the antagonists to leave until the group’s judgment is enforced.
The organizers say they want to draw increasing public attention to Beijing’s brutal security crackdowns, hoping this will produce the kind of snowball effect it has had in the Arab world.
“We were raised glorifying Chairman Mao’s guerrilla warfare tactics,” says Flower Girl, the online pseudonym of one of the organizers. “Hit and run, hide among the people like fish in water, advance when your adversary retreats and retreat when they advance, hide and bide: hide your resources and bide your time.
“It’s poetic justice that we’re using the very strategies that brought the Communist Party to power — but nonviolently, to demonstrate how far the party has strayed from its grassroots origin as a people’s movement. Its brutal response clearly illustrates why political change in China is necessary.”
Will this protest effort succeed in China? It’s hard to say. But it has produced predictable results. Dozens of civil rights lawyers have been beaten and detained in recent weeks, political dissidents placed under house arrest, social activists harassed, and the word “jasmine” banned by China’s Internet censors. Some foreign reporters also have been beaten. As Chairman Mao said, “revolution is not a dinner party.”
On Sunday, Feb. 20, an online call for people to gather in central locations in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and several other major cities to celebrate the “Jasmine revolutions” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other Arab states resulted in a massive security crackdown. When the gatherings took place, police, foreign reporters and curious passersby significantly augmented the number of participants. Scuffles and arrests took place but there were no major incidents.
Then came a call to congregate again, on Sunday, Feb. 27. This time organizers urged people to gather in several dozen city centers at 2 p.m. and “stroll” together. Crowds gathered in dozens of cities and China’s security apparatus responded with overwhelming force. Numerous foreign journalists were detained and beaten, and dozens of Chinese citizens were dragged away for incarceration and interrogation. But the effort achieved its objective — attracting increased attention by Chinese citizens unaware of the events in the Arab world due to heavy government censorship of mainland media. Another “stroll” has been publicized for March 6, and each Sunday thereafter.
Can these “Sunday strolls” have any effect on China’s seemingly indomitable apparatus of repression and authoritarian rule? Although many people would scoff at the notion, this was how Poland’s Solidarity movement, the first independent worker’s union in a Communist-bloc country, was formed.
In the summer of 1980, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, led by Lech Walesa, were preparing to strike when they were informed that Poland’s Communist leaders were preparing to fire on the workers. So instead they began less confrontational protest activities, like “strolling” in large numbers through the city center, where strikers could not be distinguished from other citizens.
The regime tried to crack down, but its repression served to mobilize the broader population and resulted in the founding of the Solidarity union that September. The regime attempted to destroy the union, but in the end it was forced to give way.
Many people argue that the rapid fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union won’t happen in China because the Chinese are uniquely unsuited for democracy due to their long Confucian traditions and history of authoritarian rule.
Of course, the same was said of Arabs until the events of the past two months. In fact, China held parliamentary elections after the fall of the Qing dynasty’s last emperor in the early 20th century. But warlordism, the Japanese invasion and decade-long occupation, and Mao’s Communist Revolution suffocated this early effort at democracy.
Few people expected the explosive events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and the other Arab states. Perhaps governments, both in the West and Beijing, should prepare for the unexpected in China.
Archer Wang, a student at Duke University from China and Scott Savitt, a visiting scholar in Duke’s media studies program and author of a forthcoming memoir on his two decades as a foreign correspondent in China.