By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

An on-location report on youth protests in Beijing

I am in Beijing, China. Monday morning Beijing time (Sunday evening U.S. time), after coming back from breakfast, I logged onto the New York Times website to check news from the Middle East. (This website is in my experience never blocked in China.) To my surprise, on the home page -- with the message that the story had been posted only 8 minutes earlier -- was a story titled "Chinese Security Officials Respond to Call for Protests."

Of course I immediately opened the story, to discover that on Chinese versions of Twitter -- Twitter itself is blocked in China, but there are a number of very popular local Twitter-like sites, and the phenomenon called "micro-blogs" (weibo) has received a lot of attention in the official Chinese media -- calls had appeared for people to assemble at 2 p.m. at 13 sites in China, including a McDonald's outlet in Beijing and a Starbucks outlet in Shanghai, to launch a "Jasmine Revolution" in China.

The story featured a photo of police moving along some young people at the McDonald's outlet at Wangfujin, a shopping area only a few blocks from Tiananmen Square, which a decade ago was the newest and coolest shopping area in Beijing, but has since lost a lot of its glamour to newer and glitzier shopping emporia further to the east in the city. Bizarrely, on Saturday night I had been at Wanfujin eating Sichuan hot pot with a Chinese friend, and had walked by the very McDonald's shown in the picture. It is amazing that the young people calling for these protests had picked out American food outlets as the sites for protests.

According to the Times article, the government had blocked sending micro-blog messages to multiple recipients, and had blocked web links using the words "Jasmine Revolution." I tried the Hong Kong Google home page.  I got to the website, but as soon as I tried to type in a letter under the search function, the site was blocked. But when I tried Baidu, the Chinese version of Google, and searched "Jasmine Revolution" in English, not in Chinese, I did get a fairly large number of links. However, just as I was reading the Times article with CNN reporting on Libya in the background, a commentator said something like, "In Beijing, the government, fearing the spread of the Jasmine Revolution..." -- and suddenly the TV screen went blank for about a minute, when coverage resumed, with more discussion of Libya.

As of about an hour later, as I am writing this, the Times article is still up on the web, and not blocked.

Wow, politics in the era of the Internet!

p.s. Update Monday: Fifteen minutes after I sent the post, the New York Times article was blocked at my hotel, but then I could access it again at the Beijing airport later in the day!  I forwarded the article link to two Chinese students -- neither had heard about the event, though neither was surprised that it had happened.  One told me he could access the article from his house, but not on a computer at his university.  Somebody else told me that on Sunday, the entire search function on the Chinese "micro-blogging" (Twitter-like) sites was disabled, and rumors were going around on these sites that "something" had happened, but people didn't know exactly what.  The English-language edition of The Global Times actually wrote a small story, and an editorial, on the protest, but I believe -- not certain -- that neither appeared in the Chinese edition of the same paper.

Posted on Feb 20, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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