Washing Away a Call to Protest in Beijing

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Any hint of “jasmine revolution” in Beijing was swept away Sunday, first by legions of police, then by trucks spraying water onto a shopping street in the center of the Chinese capital. There was no sign of protest, and once again the turnout was largely security forces, foreign reporters and curious tourists.

Anonymous organizers made the online call for importing the Arab world’s uprisings to China a week before. After tiny protests on the previous Sunday, they announced further demonstrations in 23 Chinese cities on subsequent Sundays. In Beijing police warned foreign journalists to follow China’s reporting regulations. Police forced some correspondents to register upon nearing the protest site, and a few were even detained and sent to nearby police stations for lengthy additional registration hurdles. But many more made it to the planned location of the 2 p.m. protest. The organizers had called for the event to be held at a McDonald’s restaurant on the Wangfujing shopping street, but late last week construction fences were erected in front of it. On Sunday the fences were covered with propaganda banners urging the development of an “internationalized, modernized” district.

The street was packed with a police, both in uniform and plainclothes. I overheard a tour guide tell a group of tourists that with so many police there must be someone famous in the area. The journalists strolling past would occasionally nod and chat in small groups, and the police would tell us to move when our groups grew too large. They photographed and filmed us. At least three foreign press photographers were reportedly beaten by plainclothes police in Beijing. (A later report indicated that just one journalist had been beaten after videotaping two others being manhandled.)

At the appointed time, police and journalists watched the street. There was no demonstration that I could see. Shortly thereafter, water trucks rolled into position in front of a KFC restaurant. They then began making passes down the block, spraying water onto the street. The temperature was just above freezing, and no one wanted to get hit. So the crowds cleared out. Police followed the trucks with German shepherds who walked gingerly through the cold water. As I left I noticed crowds of people lined up behind the doors of the Oriental Plaza mall at the south end of Wangfujing. Secruity guards were blocking people from entering the street as it was flushed clean.

In one of the Communist Party-run Chinese newspapers, last week’s protest was scorned as “performance art.” Today it seemed more like a sad farce.