A message appeared on an overseas dissident Web site on Feb. 19, calling on people to gather at 2pm the next day in 13 major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Nanjing. The message was quickly spread on Twitter and Facebook, and pretty soon everyone was talking about the “Jasmine Revolution.”
Sure enough, on Sunday afternoon, people went to the suggested locations. The Jasmine Revolution had begun in China, albeit on nothing like the scale we have seen in the Middle East in recent weeks.
What I find more interesting than the response of the people is that of the authorities. A lot of people who read the original posting were doubtful it would actually come off. The majority found it difficult to believe that a large scale demonstration could ever take place in China.
However, the authorities did take it seriously. A message was sent out on Feb 19, with universities warning students to avoid participating in any marches.
On the day itself, the military police and riot police were out in force and online traffic on Wu Mao [(五毛), a pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) online commentator], Twitter and Facebook pages increased. The irony of there being more police on the streets than demonstrators, was not lost on our fellow netizens.
There was something endearingly postmodern, they wryly remarked, about a democratic revolution announced by the online community, enthusiastically taken up by communist autocrats, and attended en masse by the security forces.
This online-inspired “jasmine” event relayed a number of messages.
First, the social revolutions happening in the Middle East have begun to influence events in China.
Second, the authorities in China are clearly worried about how stable society is right now. The fact that the Internet is controlled means not many people in China were really aware of the online call-to-arms, but the authorities were not taking any chances, regardless.
In principle at least, the authorities should have access to more information on what is going on in China than individuals in other countries, and so should be more informed about just how stable Chinese society really is.
Consequently, their reaction sends a clear message to the outside world. Namely, that Chinese society has already entered a period of significant instability.
The third signal is that this event was based on the same model as that which set off the revolution in Egypt.
It all started online, and emerged among online chatter, without anyone conspicuously orchestrating events. This model, then, is the third reference point, -demonstrating that henceforth Chinese civil society has a number of ways of making itself heard.
It is true that the experiment was not exactly a resounding success, but that is not to take away from the fact that the objective was achieved.
More importantly, if the momentum is kept up and the experiment repeated, people will gradually come to realize the kind of strength they have, keeping the government always wary.
The past few days have also shown us that in today’s China, the stand-off between the state and civil society has entered a new phase, and the Internet is gradually creating the right environment for a revolution by the people.
Observers who hold out little hope of a democratic movement emerging in China should perhaps take another look at what’s going on in the country. From these seemingly insignificant beginnings springs much hope.