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Psst… Where’s the Revolution?

Rob Schmitz Mar 10, 2011
No jasmine here.

I’ve put the blogging on hold to focus on a reporting trip up North in Beijing (more to follow on that front), and during my hiatus, there’s been plenty of Chinopoly-worthy material to report on: China’s government has unveiled its newest five-year plan, President Obama has nominated a new ambassador to China… But all of this seems to be overshadowed by the largest pseudo-event in China’s recent history: China’s great Jasmine Revolution.

China’s Jasmine Revolution started with a tweet. And then another. Where were these tweets coming from? China? Taiwan? A basement in Palo Alto (as one Beijing-based journalist publicly wondered)? Nobody seemed to know (but there’s a rundown of events here). It didn’t matter. China’s security apparatus was all over it, and it wasn’t going to allow any peep, bleep, or tweet about revolution go by the wayside. The tweets asked people to take strolls in the busiest shopping districts of several major Chinese cities on Sunday afternoon–a time when people typically take strolls in the busiest shopping districts of their cities. It was either an incredibly stupid or genius plan, depending on how you looked at it: Stupid, because nobody would be able to gauge how large these ‘protests’ were. Genius, for largely the same reason: the police wouldn’t figure out who the protesters were.

None of these events attracted the throngs of protesters who showed up in the Spring of 1989 at Tiananmen Square or ten years later during protests by followers of Falun Gong. As we’ve reported in past weeks, China’s economy, while definitely suffering minor bumps and bruises lately, is much healthier than the economies of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Many Chinese know this, and they don’t want to do anything to put their economy at risk (even if they do catch wind of a protest–you need a VPN client to access Twitter in China). Thus, China’s Jasmine Revolution has been reduced to throngs of jittery police showing up at the designated spots each Sunday facing off with dozens of foreign journalists. Instead of a story about Chinese citizens being the victims of brutal crackdowns, the story has become one of journalists getting roughed up, their rights trampled on. In sum, foreign correspondents in China, instead of covering the Chinese, are now covering themselves. A logical conclusion, perhaps, from a revolution whose reflection was first spotted in the look-at-me-look-at-me hall of mirrors of Twitter.

So where’s the real revolution? I caught a glimmer of it the other day while trolling my favorite Chinese blogs. If you’ve got five minutes, check out this video that’s received more than a million hits.

It’s security camera footage of an attempted bank robbery outside the port city of Tianjin. The robber’s persistence is both haunting and comical; it reminds me of the Cohen Brothers’ portrayal of Anton Chigurh, the hitman antagonist in their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

Who is this guy? We don’t know. He might have been a farmer, a factory worker, unemployed, or, like Chigurh, a sociopath. What’s clear is that he wants money, and he’s willing to work hard to get it, at great risk to others, but mostly to himself. Like the rest of the have-nots in China, perhaps he’s so desperate he’s reached the point of no return. The price of food, property, energy, everything–is going up in China, putting more pressure on those who haven’t been able to secure a seat on China’s economic bullet train. This man is hungry for money, like much of China. And he’s not taking part in a mass movement. He’s trying to solve his problem his own way. If a critical mass of those left behind ever reaches this level of desperation, that’s when a real revolution may begin.

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