The Jasmine Effect: China’s New Clampdown

The scent of revolution drifting from the Middle East and

North Africa has seen the Central Government of China begin a renewed attack on

freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association, of

proportions not seen since the lead-up to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.


In the months

since the calls for “jasmine” revolution spread from Tunisia

in December 2010, the rule of law in China has effectively been rendered

irrelevant, with journalists, lawyers, human rights activists and students

illegally incarcerated, harassed and intimidated. A tight net has been cast

around information published by journalists or circulated online by citizens.


The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

considers that there are grave breaches of human rights occurring with

increasing frequency and recommends urgent action be taken by international

organisations to bring China’s

authorities to account.


The spread of popular uprisings, known

as “jasmine” revolutions, in Tunisia and Egypt through to neighbouring

countries in late 2010 and early 2011 received global attention, no less from

China’s authorities. Media in China barely reported the news of the overthrow

of Egypt’s

regime that came with President Hosni Mubarak’sresignation

on February 11, with the exception of emphasising that the Central Government had

evacuated Chinese nationals from the country for their safety.


However when a Chinese lawyer in Shanghai

posted “celebration for Egypt”

to her Twitter feed, she was quickly interrogated by a security officer in Shanghai on February 15.

The hint of revolution reverberated through the nervous system of China’s



Sunday protest call brings rapid



As “jasmine” sentiments drifted across

to China in the days

following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime of Egypt,


Central Government moved quickly to silence any whiff of dissent. Hundreds of

people across the country were interrogated and detained by security bureau officers

without due process. On Saturday, February 19, anonymous online posts called

for “Chinese jasmine revolution” protests to be held every Sunday, the

first within 24 hours. These posts were quickly censored, and on February 19,

when the website Boxun ( uploaded similar information,

it was shut down by hackers.


On the same day, the President

of China, Hu Jintao, held a “seminar” for all key leaders of bureaus and

departments of all provincial governments. Hu reminded all leaders to “enhance

their social management skills” in order to ensure social stability. Among the

eight points in his speech, he emphasised that online opinion must remain

within the well-established framework of “supervision of public opinion”, that

is to control all negative or sensitive reports that might affect the

Government’s power. The February 19 speech was widely interpreted as instructions

for all authorities to come to grips with “virtual society” online.



Yongkang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee with oversight of public

security, followed this call on February 20, saying that all Communist leaders

should enhance their social management skills in order to protect the status of

the Communist Ruling Party. Zhou also made comments clearly designed to

coincide with the first protests that appeared in China, which had been flagged

in the online calls for demonstrations. “Ensure all social disagreement and

conflicts vanish when they are in sprout,” Zhou said, according to reports.


The same day,

numerous uniformed and plain-clothes law enforcement officers, regardless of their

designated bureau or department, rushed into the mooted protest areas to

supervise the crowds. Many posed as pedestrians, students or street cleaners to

take photos and collect information of protest participants and journalists

covering the events.


Despite the

large police presence on the streets and the censorship of online messages, more

than 1000 people reportedly gathered at a public square in Wangfujing, Beijing, one of the

suggested protest areas. A few young people were immediately removed by police

without reason. One was manhandled by officers when they saw him holding a few

stalks of jasmine. Similar cases occurred in Shanghai. On this first Sunday protest,

police focused only on participants in the protests.


Spotlight shifts to journalists



had been blocked, harassed and manhandled by uniformed and plain-clothes

officers on February 20, but there were no reports of physical violence. However,

the strategy changed at protests on the following Sunday, February 27 –

journalists became the targets. At least 16 foreign media professionals suffered

various forms of physical violence at the hands of the authorities. One video

journalist was pushed to the ground by a uniformed officer and then was kicked

and punched by a man believed to be from the security bureau. While on the

ground the journalist was also hit on the head by a street cleaner with his

broom. In other incidents, plain-clothes officers pretended to be students and

approached journalists, attempting to elicit information from them on their attitudes

toward the Central Government.   


Scores detained on questionable charges


On the first

two Sundays, police removed some of those who gathered at the protest areas in

a very short period of time, but the actual number of people who were taken

away by police was much higher. In the three weeks that followed the first

Sunday protest, it is believed that more than 100 people including journalists,

artists, bloggers, dissidents, human rights activists and lawyers were

interrogated, detained or placed under house arrest without explanation.



targeted included writer Ran Yunfei and human rights activists Ding Mao, Chen

Wei and Zhu Yufu, who were charged with inciting subversion of state power

after they were detained by police on February 19 and 20. Renowned contemporary

artist Ai Weiwei remains in detention after being taken by police from Beijing International

Airport on April 3, 2011.

Prompted by calls from domestic and international organisations questioning the

legality of Ai’s arrest, police now allege Ai was involved in tax evasion. Wen

Tao, a journalist and associate of Ai, also disappeared on April 3. There is no

information available on his whereabouts.



there was little evidence that these individuals were involved in China’s so-called


revolution”, they were charged either because they allegedly passed around

information on the protests, or possibly because they posted the single word,

“support” in their microblog or Twitter streams. Ren, Chen, Ding and Ai already

had a history of criticising the authorities, having spoken out against the Sichuan provincial

government following the devastating 2008 earthquake, in which at least 70,000

people were killed.


Meanwhile, the IFJ

learned that Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper journalist Song Zhibiao

is facing losing his job after he penned a May 12 editorial that obliquely

endorsed the actions of Ai Weiwei, in a piece which made several references to

the artist’s work.

Many of the scores of known detainees neither expressed their

points of view nor were involved in the protests. But they were imprisoned,

often on trumped-up charges such as illegal assembly, inciting social disorder

and endangering social security. 

Some of those detained have been released, but they have refused

to accept any media interviews and have not made any disclosures on social

networks, which is unusual. This time, responses are quite different, with one frequent Twitter user

saying that many of those detained and then released were not mentioning the

“jasmine” issue because the security bureau is tightly monitoring information.


At least two

detainees, Hua Chunhui and Wei Qiang, were sent to labour re-education camps.

Wei was charged with illegal assembly after he took photographs of the protest

at Wangfujing on February 20.


Some journalists

and citizen journalists were interrogated or detained by security officers

after they reported local news or wrote about Ai Weiwei on their microblogs or in

local newspapers to pay tribute to him.


New rules for foreign journalists


The clampdown

has seen a dramatic change in the regulations that apply to foreign journalists

working in China.

According to the regulations for foreign correspondents, which remain in place

after they were installed for 2008 Olympics, journalists are permitted to interview

any person as long as the interviewee gives consent. In a significant backward

step, authorities now demand that journalists seek approval from officials

before conducting any interviews. At the same time, several potential interviewees

have refused to accept interviews after being pressured by local government



Students, religious and cultural events restricted


All universities

and boarding schools were issued with a notice from authorities ordering that

students must not meet in groups on campus. Students were also instructed to report

to teachers if they leave school during commemorations for the national day of

remembrance, Tomb Sweeping Day, from April 3 to 5. The notice stated that

students were not allowed to join any assembly in groups.


Events that

see gatherings of groups of people have been banned, including Christian

worship, concerts, arts exhibitions, cultural events and even a conference to

mark the 100-year anniversary of the 1911 revolution in China. Flower

farmers and florists are banned from selling jasmine and all product

advertisements of the plant are banned.


Communication under the spotlight


Daily communication

between people has become heavily censored. When people say “jasmine” on the

phone, the conversation will immediately disconnect. The use of the word is

also banned online. Gmail users complained that they had many difficulties

accessing their accounts, although Google claimed that thorough checks had revealed

the system had no problems. Citizen journalists informed the IFJ that internet

services were unexpectedly disconnected by their local providers because they had

visited some “illegal” websites. Some netizens also complained that they had

difficulties accessing some overseas websites even when using a VPN to get

around China’s

so-called Great Firewall.


People are

also unable to send any SMS containing the word “jasmine”. Even a famous

cultural song, “Jasmine”, was totally banned from video-sharing websites,

despite President Hu appearing in one of the videos singing the song on his

official visit to Kenya

in 2006.    


Monopoly facilitates communications censorship


The breakdown

in myriad communications is chiefly due to the monopoly communication market that

exists in mainland China.

The current communication companies are owned by the state, and all internet

service providers have to sign a self-regulatory agreement which prevents them

from allowing the uploading of “unlawful” messages including, for example,

pornography, inciting social unrest, and separatism.



governments and some ISPs retain a large number of “online commentators”, some

of who are journalists. These online commentators have a lot of

responsibilities including the checking of “sensitive” messages and then reporting

to online administrators who delete the relevant information. They also have to

engage in online forums and chat rooms in order to divert the focus of online

comments if people are discussing hot topics such as inflation or property



A new body,

the State Internet Information

Office, was established under the State Council on May 4. Authorities claim

that the new office will help improve coordination among government ministries

and agencies that have oversight of the internet, but in fact it is clearly

aimed at further tightening censorship on the internet. The Vice-minister of

Police Bureau, Zhang Xinfeng, is one of the key appointees to the new office. Its

head, Wang Chen, is also the deputy head of the Central Propaganda Department

and a member of the National Committee of China.


Conclusion and recommendations


The IFJ has

serious concerns regarding the heavy-handed reaction by China’s authorities to journalists

and human rights defenders in the wake of calls for “jasmine” protests. It is

imperative that action be taken now by civil society and human rights

organisations in order to bring China’s authorities

to account.


The IFJ calls

on the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, to appoint a Special

Rapporteur to investigate and report to the UN Human Rights Council on human

rights violations in China, with special reference to violations of the right

of journalists to report freely and independently and the rights of all to

freedom of expression and access to information.


The IFJ recommends that human rights and civil society organisations from

around the world jointly urge President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao do the



·       Unconditionally release all people who have been arbitrarily

detained in the clampdown since February 2011 and earlier for expressing their

opinions or reporting the news.


·       Direct law enforcement officers at all level of government

to end harassment and obstruction of media personnel and those on whom they



·       Recognise Article 35 of China’s Constitution, which

underlines freedom of expression, by removing barriers to the circulation of

information through the media and by individuals in print, broadcast or online.


·       Protect the fundamental rights of all peoples in China,

including their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, access

to information and freedom of assembly.



For further

information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific

on +61 2 9333 0919



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