In China’s “Jasmine” Crackdown, Image Matters

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After the paranoid and sometimes violent response to yesterday’s thwarted “jasmine rallies,” a question hangs in the air: why would a government that seems so strong react with such fear? After all, few think that China will experience its own Middle Eastern-style “jasmine revolution.” The story from yesterday’s protest sites, at least until cops started beating journalists, was that there were no protests.

Then came word that the men in plainclothes, likely security personnel, had assaulted a Bloomberg News journalist and attacked a BBC crew. Many others were detained, including journalists from CNN and the New York Times. One thing that the most violent assaults had in common was that the victims had video cameras. It is one thing if writers like myself scribble a few lines about police crackdowns. It is images, especially video, of the event that could truly capture public attention. And so video journalists and photographers were the targets. This is not a new phenomenon. Todd Carrel, a former correspondent for ABC news (and a former professor of mine) was beaten severely by plainclothes police while videotaping a demonstration in Tiananmen Square in 1992. He still suffers from his injuries. This 1993 Los Angeles Times story about his case has eerie parallels to today, including a Chinese official referring to what the paper called an “unknown or nonexistent law, claiming that journalists were required to obtain advance permission for any reporting in the square.”

If there is a thread linking Sunday’s crackdown with the other big China news story of the day, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s wide-ranging web chat, it is image. Wen is the official who serves at the humane face of the government. He visits with miners, farmers, AIDS patients and petitioners seeking justice. He is usually one of the first high-level officials to visit disasters scenes, like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He talks up political liberalization in interviews with the foreign press, and praises fallen reformers at home. Wen has done web chats with the Xinhua news service for a few years now, and yesterday’s wasn’t timed to coincide with the online call for Middle Eastern-style “jasmine rallies” in China. But it seems hardly a coincidence that the many of the topics he discussed—corruption, inflation, the wealth gap—are also issues raised by the anonymous protest organizers. Wen put forward a lower target of 7% economic growth over the next five years, down from 7.5% in the previous five-year plan, saying the country would focus more on the quality of life rather than rapid expansion. “We should change the criteria for evaluating officials’ work,” he said. “The supreme criterion for assessing their performance is whether the people feel happy and satisfied, rather than skyscrapers.”

The message, it seems, is that the Chinese state isn’t content with smashing “jasmine rallies” and scrubbing images of the crackdown from the video cameras of the foreign press. It also wants to remind the people that the government cares. And it is that combination of brute force and soft persuasion that helps keep the Communist Party in charge.