It was bizarre scene: a crowd of several hundred, including dozens of journalists and police, gathered outside a McDonald’s on a busy downtown shopping mall. Journalists and onlookers filmed the police. The police filmed the crowd. And everyone waited for something to happen.
The setting was Wangfujing, Beijing’s oldest shopping mall located a short walk from Tiananmen Square. Some of the crowd had gathered in response to an anonymous post on Boxun.com — a US-based Chinese news website – on Saturday calling for "Jasmine Revolution" rallies, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, across 13 major cities in China at 2pm the following day.
News of the Boxun post spread rapidly via twitter and online news sites. Major news outlets claimed high profile activists around the country were detained on Saturday night and Sunday morning, although the numbers of those taken into custody varied wildly from "as many as 15" reported by the ABC to "up to 100" reported by AFP. Search terms related to the protest were blocked within China. In any case, many microblogging sites including Twitter are permanently blocked by China’s "Great Firewall".
Nevertheless, shortly before 2pm on Sunday a crowd began to gather on and around the steps in front of the Wangfujing McDonald’s, along with dozens of police. The crowd and heavy police presence drew many curious onlookers along the busy shopping strip, and by 2pm there were several hundred people gathered outside the fast food outlet.
As the hour struck, everyone — including the police — stood poised with cameras ready. And then nothing happened. There was no shouting from the crowd. No banners. No raised fists. If anything a slightly carnivalesque atmosphere permeated the crowd.
At 2.15pm a man caused a small stir by throwing a bunch of flowers over a group of police, and shortly after there were minor scuffles on the steps outside the McDonald’s as police moved to clear the restaurant’s entrance. The crowd shifted around the corner into a side street, where at least one Chinese man was manhandled by plain-clothed and uniformed police, wrestled to the ground and taken away. It was unclear why he was singled out.
By 2.40pm the crowd had largely dispersed and the normal flow of Sunday afternoon shoppers resumed, although a heavy police presence remained.
So what did this "incident" amount to? The start of a protest movement or a rather farcical attempt at politically motivated flash mobbing?
Although there is considerable anger and resentment running through Chinese society about a raft of issues, including skyrocketing food and property prices, low wages and endemic corruption, relatively few urbanites are willing to seriously challenge the existing political order. And it was a rather well-heeled parade of shoppers that milled around Sunday’s gathering.
Put simply, urban living standards have risen considerably over the past two decades, and urbanites enjoy a relatively high degree of personal freedom — outside the realm of politics. For all its problems, the existing order has brought improvements to the lives of most living in China’s cities. Any kind of radical change would spell uncertainty, and historically uncertainty for ordinary Chinese people has meant everything from social chaos to political violence, from food shortages to rampant inflation. If that’s not enough, in the background lies the very real threat of serious repercussions for anyone brave enough to openly question one-party rule.
In contrast, the demographic that suffers most under China’s authoritarian system were conspicuously absent from Sunday’s proceedings. Rural unrest is a serious issue in China, but Beijing also knows that even large uprisings by peasants in isolated areas pose little threat to their grip on power, so long as the government controls all communications and transport infrastructure.
Isolated protests by individuals or small groups who trickle into Beijing from outside the capital are a regular occurrence on Tiananmen Square — and rarely last more than a few moments before being swept up by the area’s overwhelming security presence. These incidents almost never attract the attention of international media and the people involved have no means of breaking through China’s firewall to communicate with other disgruntled rural dwellers or activists based in the cities.
So the nation’s most disenfranchised remain isolated, divided and largely kept at arm’s length from urban dwellers, while those with the most to lose from the uncertainty of change in China stare mutely at police in urban shopping malls. There is a very real anger bubbling below the prosperous veneer of modern China, but Sunday’s gathering reaffirmed that if change comes, it will come from within, and is unlikely to mimic precedents set in Egypt and Tunisia.
It certainly won’t be willed into existence by those living outside China’s borders — no matter how many times their calls to arms are re-tweeted.
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