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Jasmine stirrings in China: No awakening, but crush it anyway
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Jasmine stirrings in China: No awakening, but crush it anyway
Published  03/3/2011

The Economist
Mar 3rd 2011 | BEIJING

AT SOME point in the education of every foreign student of Chinese, joining a chorus of the simple and syrupy song “Beautiful Jasmine Flower” is all but mandatory. A bunch of students in Kenya sang it to Hu Jintao in 2006, as the Chinese president clapped along, a scene recorded by China’s state-run broadcaster. Until recently that clip was available on Chinese video-sharing websites. Now it has been removed. Googling the folk song’s name produces an error message, indicating that it is blocked by China’s internet firewall. As China ratchets up security to stop contagion from Arab uprisings, even this folksy song, a theme tune at the Beijing Olympics, has become newly taboo. China’s leaders have the jitters.

The Communist Party is going to extraordinary lengths to prevent stirrings of a Tunisian-style “jasmine revolution” in China. Beijing is gearing up for the annual session of the country’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), on March 5th. Security is always tight for this event, which runs for less than two weeks. Every year the authorities worry that the disaffected will use the session as a pretext to air grievances. But the unrest in north Africa and the Middle East, and calls on the internet for copycat protests in China, have made them especially anxious. Officials insist that the Chinese have no desire to protest. Their clampdown suggests they believe otherwise.

On February 20th and again a week later the police mounted huge security operations in Beijing, Shanghai and several other cities, after the circulation of microblog messages urging citizens to take part in silent walk-pasts on those days. Barely anyone did. Police pounced on the handful who looked so inclined and whisked them away. Dissidents have been detained or put under heightened surveillance. Several people accused of circulating internet calls for protests have been charged with endangering state security.

Foreign journalists have also been summoned by the police and given warnings not to go to the designated protest areas without permission. This has not been granted, at least for would-be protest times. An American journalist was beaten and kicked by plain-clothed goons and detained for several hours while attempting to report in one such spot in Beijing’s central shopping district. Several others were turned away or physically harassed by police, prompting objections by American and European officials.

The NPC session comes at a difficult time for the Chinese government, with many citizens unhappy about rising food and housing costs. On the agenda is a new five-year economic plan meant to help China wean itself off investment and exports and rely more on consumption to drive growth. Something similar was attempted five years ago, but household incomes and consumption have grown more slowly than has the economy overall. Officials worry that a widening gap between rich and poor threatens stability.

Chinese leaders stress how hard they are trying to keep prices in check and to look after the needy. In an online “chat” with internet users on February 27th (now standard before the NPC meeting), the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, promised the construction of 10m low-cost subsidised homes this year, 70% more than in 2010.

Mr Wen also suggested he would rein in an investment boom in the provinces that has been fuelling inflation. The government, he said, would aim for annual GDP growth of 7% in the next five years, compared with a target of 7.5% set for 2006 to 2010 (when growth, in fact, averaged more than 10% a year). But Caixin Weekly, a Beijing magazine, reports that provinces still vie with one another to boost their GDP figures with the help of big investment projects. Many have set targets far higher than Mr Wen’s.

For all its nervousness, the Chinese leadership is a collective affair: no hated Mubarak or Qaddafi figure serves as a lightning-rod for discontent. Top leaders even favour occasionally exposing egregious corruption among their subordinates. In recent days the official media have reported a huge alleged bribery scandal involving the railways minister, Liu Zhijun, who was sacked last month. The ministry is a safe target, given widespread public complaints about overcrowded trains and corrupt ticketing.

As for the NPC itself, do not expect dissent. Its nearly 3,000 delegates are hand-picked. “Debate” consists mainly of delivering speeches in support of government policy. Jasmine is present, if at all, only in endless cups of tea.