I'm sure you have your assumptions of how protests are handled in China. Hearing what the locals and expats have said about this has only solidified my assumptions. I learned that all gatherings are a no-no, including private ones like, say, a religious meeting at one's home. (There are state-sanctioned churches that are quite popular around here.)
So upon hearing the other day about a protest happening right up the street, I had to see this with my own peepers. And I learned firsthand how China can be an approachable and abrasive place to be.
Here's what happened:
Warren, a co-teacher from New Zealand, walked into my school lobby one recent morning and blurted out in his awesome accent that there was a protest happening nearby. I wasn't planning on sightseeing that day, but this was a drop-what-you-are-doing-and-hop-to-it kind of event, no?
I arrived to the scene on this pleasant day to see people gathering around the gated entrance to a government building alongside a main city road in Zhuhai. I'd say there were 150 people along the sidewalk, centered around this entrance. The sidewalk was cordoned off where the protesters gathered, and a large banner with black Chinese characters hung between trees on the sidewalk. Chinese sources (okay, a couple of co-workers) told me the banner said rural people were having "living problems" but complained the government wasn't doing anything to help.
It was a peaceful event. No megaphones. No "Hell no, we won't go!" They just sat and stood behind the banner talking, smoking, whatever. They did block the entrance, though; maybe that was their plan. Two guards normally stood at attention at this entrance; today, a few more guards were scattered about.
Let me say a word about police in China: overall, they're relaxed and approachable -- less of the tough-guy abrasion I'm used to with law enforcement. In fact, I walked by this same government complex a month earlier and said hello to the at-attention guard. His face lit up with a smile and he said hello back. Another time I walked past armed guards around some ATMs -- the first time I saw a gun here (no guns are allowed in China). I wanted a picture and half-expected a tough grimace and head-cock saying to "get you and your camera out of here." However, the guard just smiled and posed.
There are several reasons for the comfort, I suppose -- the populace isn't armed, so not a threat. A homogeneous population feels more at ease, perhaps. Maybe it's an East vs. West cultural thing. But another factor I've realized is the country's organization. The government houses the population in a societal bubble. There's obviously a confinement, but also an interesting freedom, as within, things seem more relaxed.
Thus, there's kind of an all-or-nothing policing approach, and protests (and almost all organized gatherings) are seen as potential bursts to this bubble. Also a threat is any media, which are seen as oxygen to a flame. I reckon this was why a foreigner with a camera turned a head or two.
I figured I could get away with a couple of shots before they asked me to leave. That's pretty much what happened. There were a lot of eyes on me. The officers whispered to each other and pointed in my direction. (This gave me the willies.) Many of the protesters looked my way, too. For just a minute, I was caught in the middle of a brief confusion when some protesters inside the cordoned-off area lifted the ropes for me to enter. I didn't bite, though, and just then, police came over to ask me to leave. There were a couple of plainclothes guys who were actually more hostile toward me than the uniforms. One asked who I worked for. "I'm a teacher," I responded to the man in my comfort zone.
During my escorted exit, protesters began to take a more dramatic stand -- across the street in what looked like an attempt to block traffic. The plainclothes fellow pushed and followed me a good 100 feet past this action. When I looked back, buses were honking and cops were in the street redirecting traffic. The protesters seemed to have managed a little chaos.
Later that evening, I rode past the scene to see that everything was back to normal. It was like it had never happened. Indeed, I asked a Chinese friend to read the news online to see if this rare protest made headlines, but she found nothing. To the vast majority of the people in Zhuhai, this event did not take place, and that's pretty much how they want it to be around here.
Prior to coming to China, I had heard much about the restrictive government. True, the government is effective at blocking media, crowd control, etc. But I think the biggest factor is a public that's complicit. I find it all an example of the government actually obeying the will of the people. It's funny, actually. For a people that rely so heavily on government -- for morale, security, and identity -- you'd think there would be more reasons for protest and controversy. Yet few seem to exist. It's also funny to bring up complacence in a post about a protest. But there's a real disparity between citizen action here and in other countries. Most of my non-Chinese acquaintances easily get around the Internet blocks and even watch blocked American TV somehow. The Chinese, though certainly able, just don't seem interested in breaching the bubble. The government provides the citizens with Internet equivalents to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. If I mention a good article that's on a blocked site, a Chinese friend will just nod with no intention of subverting.
I say all this as neutrally as I can. Because one thing I've learned is that people prefer different things in different places. And some differences run deep. China's whole social structure rests on a plane that differs from America's and comes across as both more restrictive but also freeing. It's approachably abrasive. And recognizing this polarizing reality helps you better understand China -- and people.
For footage I took at the protest, go to my Facebook page, www.facebook.com/newplateaus. Also, check out the page for updates to my upcoming book, the fund-raising effort to get it printed or to write a comment if you so desire.
BRANDON FERDIG, who spent a year teaching and traveling in China, writes a weekly blog at www.newplateaus.areavoices.com. This is an excerpt from his time ih China. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.