This article is excerpted from William J. Dobson’s book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.
Today is June 4, the 23rd anniversary of the Chinese government’s brutal massacre of its own citizens in Tiananmen Square. That means, like all the June 4s since 1989, that today Chinese security forces are on high alert, watchful for anyone who would attempt to use this day as an opportunity to make a political statement or remind people of the night Chinese soldiers fired on fleeing students in the streets near Tiananmen. But, as special a day as June 4 may be for those Chinese who remember what happened, it is not the only day the regime sits on edge.
The longer the Chinese Communist Party stays in power, the more politically sensitive anniversaries the regime accumulates. The calendar has become littered with dates that remind people of the regime’s crimes or serve as potential flash points. A quick rundown of the Chinese political calendar would include March 10 (the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising), May 4 (anniversary of the 1919 May 4 Movement), June 4 (the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre), July 5 (the 2009 suppression of Muslims in Xinjiang), July 22 (the 1999 crackdown on the Falun Gong movement), and Oct. 1 (the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic). Any of these dates are times when the regime must be on the lookout for those who might try to rally people against the Communist Party. Indeed, the fear was great enough in 2009—when many of these dates had important anniversaries—that the party reportedly established a special high-level task force called the 6521 Group. (The numbers 6521 referred to the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic, the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and the 10th anniversary of the Falun Gong crackdown.)
Last year, in February, I was in China when the regime appeared to be fretting that a new challenge to its authority might be amassing. A group, identifying itself only as the “organizers of China Jasmine Rallies,” had posted a message on Boxun, a Chinese-language news site based in the United States. No one knew who had issued the call. It read, “We call upon each Chinese person who has a dream for China to bravely come out to take an afternoon stroll at two o’clock on Sundays to look around. Each person who joins will make clear to the Chinese ruling party that if it does not fight corruption, if the government does not accept their supervision, the Chinese people will not have the patience to wait any longer.” The calls for a “Jasmine Revolution”—borrowing the name from the revolution in Tunisia a month earlier—quickly spread to other web sites and on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. The group behind the message identified specific locations in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and more than a dozen other major cities around the country where people were to come out for a “stroll.” People were asked to assemble at 2 p.m.
The designated spot in Beijing was a two-story McDonald’s in Wangfujing, an upscale shopping area not far from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. On the second Sunday of protests, a friend and I arrived at the McDonald’s more than an hour before the appointed time. If you did not already know that the revolutions in the Middle East had frayed the nerves of the country’s leadership, visiting Wangfujing that afternoon made it abundantly clear. Police and security officers were everywhere. Hundreds of blue-uniformed police officers had been deployed to just one block. Some were patrolling up and down the street; others stood on the sidewalk or in doorways, staring at each and every person as they walked past. Security volunteers, wearing red armbands, supplemented their numbers. And, adding to the show of force, plainclothes officers mixed among the people; the number of undercover police was overwhelming. At moments, in the crowds, almost every third person seemed to have an earpiece and wire coming out from under his shirt.
We ducked into the McDonald’s. Like on any day, the fast-food restaurant was busy and filled with customers. Ten or twenty years ago, as a foreigner traveling in China, you grew accustomed to having Chinese gawk at you for no other reason than you were foreign. That is seldom the case today, especially in cosmopolitan places like Beijing. But on this particular day, as soon as we walked inside, most of the patrons stared at us across their trays of food. A fair number of them had crew cuts and earpieces, too.
We took our burgers and fries to the second-floor to kill some time. After we had been sitting for a few minutes, two bulky, stern-looking men sat at the table next to us. They weren’t wearing uniforms or earpieces, but they were clearly with the Public Security Bureau, as it is called in China. Their boots were military-issue and they ate their burgers in silence.
We remained as long as we could, but after finishing our meals it became awkward to sit next to the security officers. Plus, it was getting close to 2 p.m., so we decided to return to the street. As we approached the stairs, I noticed five thuggish-looking guys at a table at the top of the landing, staring out across the restaurant, expressionless. Halfway down the stairs, I stopped and looked back up. One of the men had pulled out a small video camera and was taping us exiting the restaurant. He saw me catch him filming and smiled.
Back outside, the number of people milling about was growing. It was impossible to say whether the people walking up and down the street had come for the protest or were simply Sunday shoppers. That was the brilliance of the tactic the organizers had chosen. In places as politically restrictive as China, people going to the streets with banners or bullhorns to challenge the ruling regime do not last long. A frontal attack on the Chinese Communist Party is almost never tolerated; such protestors are hauled away to be imprisoned, “re-educated,” or never heard from again. In contrast, the call for people to “go for a stroll” struck the balance of putting the regime on edge without asking people to take an unnecessary risk. Indeed, it is a tactic with some history. In 1980, members of Poland’s Solidarity movement learned that the Communist regime intended to fire on them when they went on a planned strike in the Gdansk shipyards. So rather than begin with a ploy that might provoke the police and snuff out the burgeoning movement, they took the less confrontational approach of strolling in large numbers in public places. As in Poland, Chinese authorities were being put in the awkward position of trying to prevent a demonstration that wasn’t even happening.
The afternoon took on a surreal quality as more and more people turned up, walking slowly in a loop on the block or two near the McDonald’s. It is hard to characterize the crowd as a whole. The people were neither predominantly young nor old; no one stood out. Some were stylishly dressed; others looked like everyday Beijingers. By far, the regime’s police officers and security personnel were the largest group there. The second largest contingent was probably the throng of foreign journalists who had shown up, curious to see if anything would happen. But the sidewalks began to clog as the crowds of Chinese steadily grew. Many, even most, of these people may have been unaware of the call for a Middle East-inspired protest. Just as likely, they were curious about why so many police officers had been deployed to this high-end shopping district, and as people stopped to stare, it had the effect of making more people do the same.