By 2:30 p.m., the Chinese authorities began to demonstrate their expertise in crowd-control techniques. Ahead of the day’s event, the authorities had narrowed the public space in front of the McDonald’s by erecting wooden barricades that read “Street Repair.” (Of course, there was no construction evident.) No one was allowed to stop and gape for long. Police kept people moving, channeling the crowd in one direction, and then redirecting it in another. A large sanitation vehicle began to spray the street with high-pressure jets of water; it circled back and forth, cleaning the same street corner again and again, preventing anyone from lingering. Police officers with German shepherds and Rottweilers ensured that people stayed on the sidewalks. Roads leading to the intersection were roped off, preventing more crowds from joining us. An exit from a mall near the McDonald’s was closed. I kept making loops up and down the block: down one side, then across the street, and up the other. I would see the same people again and again, as the security officers moved us as if in some elaborate, choreographed ballet. Similar scenes reportedly occurred in Shanghai and other cities, where the police presence was equally impressive. In Urumqi, the capital of restive Xinjiang province, almost no citizens were allowed near the protest site.
The regime’s heavy-handed response revealed its own worries that the protests ripping through authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East could somehow find their way to China. There was no hint of revolution in the air in February 2011, but China’s leaders intended to take no chances. Even before the first Sunday stroll, dozens of dissidents and human rights lawyers were rounded up and pre-emptively detained. Some were held under house arrest; others simply disappeared for weeks. Chinese President Hu Jintao called together provincial, ministerial, and top military leaders for a special study session at the Central Party School in Beijing on how the regime should tailor its tools for “social management.” All the members of the Politburo Standing Committee—the nine most powerful men in China—attended Hu’s speech at the meeting, which underlined the importance of tightening the regime’s control of information. The Chinese characters for jasmine had already been blocked from the Internet. Peoples’ ability to send text messages to multiple recipients was suspended. Boxun, the Chinese-language website, came under attack and was temporarily shutdown. In a more conciliatory gesture, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao held a Sunday morning Internet chat in which he pledged to sideline corrupt officials, rein in mounting inflation, and ensure that the fruit of China’s economic growth was more evenly distributed.
But when an authoritarian regime is rattled and insecure, it has a tendency to extend its ordinary prohibitions even further. In early 2011, China was no different. The organizers behind the anonymous protests had been shrewd to latch onto the “Jasmine Revolution” label. The name obviously linked their effort to the Tunisian revolution, where the rebellions against Arab autocrats had begun. But the jasmine flower has deep resonance and symbolism in Chinese culture as well. The white flower appears frequently in Chinese paintings dating back hundreds of years. Almost immediately, renditions of “Mo Li Hua,” a popular ode to the jasmine flower from the 18th century, were deleted from websites. These included videos of Hu and his predecessor, former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, belting out the tune. (The folk song is so popular it was played during the medal ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Shanghai Expo.) Authorities followed by imposing a ban on jasmines on Beijing florists and in the city’s flower markets. Vendors were told to report people showing interest in buying the now controversial flower. In such a politically charged environment, the mere mention of “jasmines” became something to be avoided. In my meetings with party officials, no one would even say the word, preferring to refer to “that flower.”
Outside China, the People’s Republic is perceived as an economic powerhouse. And rightly so: The Chinese government’s economic performance since beginning reforms in 1978 is nothing short of spectacular. For 30 years, China has averaged more than 9 percent growth. At that pace, the Chinese economy has doubled in size every eight years. In 2010, it surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, a position Japan had held for much of the last four decades. Most economists expect China to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy in the next 15 to 20 years. When Deng Xiaoping first launched the country’s reform era, China’s economy was less than 8 percent the size of the U.S. economy.
The significance of this extraordinary growth has been greatest for the people of China themselves. More than 300 million Chinese citizens—essentially the population of the United States—have risen from absolute poverty in this time. Today, China has a vibrant middle-class that makes its home in new urban boomtowns. The country can also boast a burgeoning class of wealthy and superrich elites. In 2010, the value of IPOs on Chinese stock markets was more than three times greater than those in New York. China has more than 800,000 millionaires and 65 billionaires, second only to the United States. In the summer of 2011, as the Standard & Poor’s rating agency was downgrading the creditworthiness of the U.S. government, the Communist country’s leaders—after a fair amount of gloating—expressed their faith in American capitalism. After all, as the largest foreign lender to the United States, China wants to protect its investment. (At the time, the U.S. government owed each Chinese citizen roughly $900—and rising.) To be sure, the Chinese economy has no shortage of risks and frailties, including rising inflation, a housing bubble, and institutionalized corruption. Nevertheless, for a country of 1.3 billion people, the Chinese Communist Party has led the most astonishing economic achievement of not just our generation, but any generation.
Yet, for all the superlatives and accomplishments, China hardly behaves like a confident power. Its image as a modern economic colossus obscures an equally true picture of an insecure regime constantly tamping down the forces it believes could lead to its destruction. Indeed, it is fair to say that no regime thinks more about its own demise than the Chinese Communist Party. China’s leaders, judging by their actions, policies, and statements, are fixated on the weaknesses that run through their political system. It is an insecurity that manifests itself in ways that can in one instance be trivial and in another terrifying. Internationally, a representative of China is now one of the most important people in the room, whether the setting is the G20, the World Bank, or Davos. But domestically it is a regime that mobilizes thousands of police because someone writes on a foreign website that Chinese citizens should “go for a stroll.”
Thus, today, two statements are true. The Chinese Communist Party is the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful political organization in the world. And it is also afraid of a flower.