China: approachably abrasive

May 01

I’m sure you have an idea of how protests are handled in China. Eight months of hearing what locals and expats have to say has only solidified my assumptions. In fact, I learned that all gatherings are a no-no. Heck, this includes private ones of more than, say, a dozen in one’s home.

So upon hearing about a protest, I had to see this with my own peepers. And I learned, first hand, how China can be both a very approachable, yet abrasive place to be.

Here’s what happened.

I arrived to the scene and people were gathered around a nearby government building. I’d say there were 150 people spread along the sidewalk, centered around the entrance to the gated complex:

It was a peaceful event. No megaphones. No “Hell no, we won’t go!”. They just sat and stood behind a banner. They did block the entrance. Maybe that was their play:

Showing their cards

Chinese sources (okay, a couple co-workers) tell me this says something about a rural people claiming unfair treatment. They were having some “living problems” but the government wasn’t doing anything to help.

It’s funny. In a country that relies so heavily on government—not for economic support so much, but for morale, security, and identity—you’d think there’d be more reasons for protest and controversy. Yet few are had. China has that lid on pretty tight and I’ve found the people are pretty compliant in the process. But today these brave souls were making a stink.

Two guards normally stood at attention in front of this place; today there were a few more. [And let me say a word about police here, overall. They’re relaxed and approachable—less of the tough-guy abrasion I’m used to with law enforcement. I walked by this same government complex a month back and said hello to the at-attention guard. He smiled and said hello back. Another time I walked past armed guards around some ATMs—the first time I saw a gun here (no guns allowed in China). I wanted a picture and half-expected a tough grimace and head-cock saying “get you and your camera out of here”. But he just smiled and posed.

There’s a million reasons for the comfortable treatment—the populace isn’t armed, so not a threat. The people are homogeneous, so maybe feel more at ease. Maybe it’s an East vs. West cultural thing. But another factor I’ve realized is the country’s organization. The very top of government houses the population in a social bubble. There’s a confinement, but within this bubble things seem more relaxed. This creates kind of an all-or-nothing policing approach and protests (and almost all organized gatherings) are seen as potential burst to this bubble.

Also a threat is any media that they see as oxygen to a flame. So I reckon this was why a foreigner with a camera turned a head or two. I figured I could get away with a couple 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 pointing in my direction. And many of the protesters looked my way.

Additionally, 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 kept pacing away from the action, listening to the officers. There were also a couple of plain-clothes guys that were actually more hostile toward me than the uniforms. One asked who I worked for. “I’m a teacher”, I said.

Then during the walk back, protesters began lining across the street in what looked like an attempt to block traffic. (video below) This was a bigger deal. A plain-clothes fella pushed and followed me a good 100 feet past this action. He definitely didn’t want me to record this disobedience. When I last looked back, busses were honking and cops were in the street redirecting traffic. The protesters seemed to manage a little chaos.

And apparently the police wanted these rabble-rousers on camera:

Later that evening, I rode past the scene on my way to teach. Everything was back to normal. I asked a Chinese friend to read the news online to see if the 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 be around here.

In America, I had heard about suppression of the citizens and censorship. But the impression from being here is that the Chinese government and people are both are very good at this arrangement. The government is effective at blocking media, crowd control, etc. I think the biggest factor, though, is a public that’s complicit.

It’s funny to bring up complacence in a post about a protest. But there’s a disparity between their action and that of most foreigners. Most of my non-Chinese acquaintances easily get around the Internet blocks and even watch American TV—which is also blocked. The Chinese, though able, just don’t seem interested in breaching the bubble. If I mention a good article that’s on a blocked site, a Chinese friend will just nod with no intention of subverting. And the government provides the citizens with Internet equivalents to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. So I doubt many, if even a handful of residents, mentioned the protest on the Internet.

Rarely do I hear criticism about government censorship, regulation, bureaucracy, etc.

And I say all this as neutrally as I can, Readers. Because one thing that 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 plain that differs from America’s and comes across as both more restrictive and more free. It’s approachably abrasive. And recognizing this polarizing reality helps you better understand China.

To new plateaus,



Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

4 responses to “China: approachably abrasive

  1. lz

    May 1, 2011 at 8:02 am

    How do you explain the detention recently of the artist who designed the bird’s nest stadium for the Olympics, and Tiennamen Square?

    • Brandon

      May 1, 2011 at 7:31 pm

      I know, Larry. And the recent Easter crackdowns were note worthy, too. For the artist, he’s a vocal and well-known critic of the government. And in the wake of the Middle East turmoil…

      The point I think is interesting is that the Western world loves to write how China will pay for their repression with a revolution Maybe one day that will happen. But I think these writers are off in their assumption that China is anywhere near this.

  2. molly miron

    May 3, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    Very interesting. We hosted a Chinese TV news anchor a few years ago. She said she felt she had perfect freedom to cover any event, even something anti government. But then she said, something anti government wouldn’t happen. I mentioned Tianemen Square and the tanks etc., and she said that was a long time ago and an aberration.

    • Brandon Ferdig

      May 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm

      Well, she’s right that Tiananmen Square was an aberration. I don’t see that kind of anger these days, though there is anger.

      I also know that they still censor some news.