Nothing specific happened on Sunday, February 27 that will change the course of Chinese history, or at least that’s what a loose collective of human rights and democracy advocates want the local police to think. As violent protests spread across Northern Africa and the Arab speaking world, a much more indirect and noncommittal form of activism may be casually beginning in China. I went to the scheduled location at the scheduled time last week in the southwestern city of Chengdu to see what was, or rather didn’t seem to be, going on.
It was to begin at 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon in Chengdu’s city center, Tianfu Square. The pedestrian area, filled with flowers and spiral statues that look like giant wine openers, is a very popular place for families and tourists to go on weekends. It is surrounded by high-rise buildings, and across the street a giant marble statue of Chairman Mao leans over a busy road.
Whether or not any protest occurred is impossible to report, considering what the post on the Chinese human rights website Boxun.com expected the protesters to do. “We invite every participant to stroll, watch, or even just pretend to pass by,” their banned statement reads. “As long as you are present, the authoritarian government will be shaking with fear.” There were many people, many police, and many cameras confiscated, but whether or not anyone but the cops knew what was happening remains a mystery to everyone.
The first thing I noticed were the soldiers in fatigues, marching in formation and lazily swinging their arms. Their boss, a stout old man with long strides, walked with them for a bit before going back to sit inside the open door of a police van. Then there was the police tape that stretched between lampposts and trashcans, blocking every bench in site. And then finally came a monk, looking out of place so far away from the Tibetan quarter (about a half mile southwest), shuffling his feet across the tile ground, smiling at something.
I walked in large circles around the square, wondering what I should look for. I began to think over what I read from an open letter the Human Rights in China organization had sent to the People’s National Congress, outlining their soft-spoken demands. “We need the right to supervise government tax collection. We need the right to scrutinize officials’ wealth. We need the right to publicly criticize the government,” the organizers demanded in the banned letter. “These are the fundamental rights of every Chinese person.”
I heard a man speaking angrily and my ears perked up. I turned around and saw two police officers and a young soldier, arguing with a pedestrian. The soldier had a fancy camera in his hands, and the cops were standing over his shoulder, watching him attempt to go through its pictures. The civilian, who looked to be in his early 30s, was clearly upset. Several minutes later, the soldier gave him back his camera and, attempting to keep a straight face despite his obvious embarrassment, walked back toward his boss and the van.
I noticed that the police were eyeing me, too, and so I told myself to act natural. But, how does one act natural in such a situation, when the whole point is to act natural in order to do something fundamentally illegal, the sort of activity that they send people to the secret prisons outside of Beijing for? I wasn’t too worried, but I did nonetheless have a strange conversation with myself as I walked, misunderstanding glances or maybe understanding them, but ultimately not knowing how to respond as I casually looked at the sites I had already seen a couple months before.
A man in plain clothes stood with a cop, joking with him and fiddling with a large map. An old-fashioned looking spiral cord ran from his ear and disappeared into his collar. I stared in disbelief, like I was seeing a movie come to life. As we made eye contact, he suddenly suddenly stopped laughing. He began walking half resolutely, half unfocused, several yards behind me. He eventually slowed down and began looking at the nearby skyscrapers, and stopped in the middle of the crowd to look at his map.
I met a young man several weeks ago, before news of these rallies went online. He began talking about something that I’d heard many Chinese gloat about over the past few months.
“Did you know that China now has the second largest economy in the world?” he asked, looking down. “We are now bigger than Japan.”
“Aren’t you proud?” I asked.
“No. I had nothing to do with it,” he said, “and it will have nothing to do with me.”
I asked him what he meant.
“The people don’t get any of the money, the officials will keep it,” he replied. “I still live in a small apartment, and I still eat bad food.”
It reminded me of the banned letter. “Every good and honest Chinese person, please think,” it reads, “Why is it that during China’s industrialization the ordinary people are becoming poorer?”
When I left Tianfu Square, it was as packed as it was when I got there. The police were still pacing the area, and Mao still stood across the street. I didn’t see the young man there, but it would have been an incredible coincidence to see him even if he was. Maybe he’ll go next Sunday, or the Sunday after that, as the protest is planned for the same time each week indefinitely. Planned or not, Tianfu Square, along with the centers of every major city across the country, will always be busy. Meanwhile, the stout old man kept sitting in his police van, leaning on his knee and looking around, until it got slowly got dark.
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[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to reflect that HRIC did not call for the protests, as originally reported.]