Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Walking Together in Shanghai

A few years ago, when the internet fad "flash mob" was introduced in China, It went beyond the usual hippy young crowd who practice it just for the fun of it. Rather, ordinary people, who may not even internet-savvy, found very practical purposes, such as gather a large crowd at a certain department store to buy the same appliance. With the crowd, it's easy to negotiate a on-the-spot volume discount for everyone's benefit.

Or a on-the-fly assembly to express an opinion in public, anonymously.

Large assembly or protests are strictly monitored and practically forbidden in China, although it remains as a right in the Constitution. It's extremely risky for anyone to step up and organize such activities, even with government's approval. Therefore, a "flash mob" gathering, with no trace of its organizers or initial agitators, fits the bill perfectly.

Long before the internet, a very low-tech version of "flash mob" has already been in practice, such as the New Year's Day protest in 1987. In more recent years, with the advance of cell phones and the popularity of text-messaging, it's much easier to reach a larger group of people on an upcoming gathering.

Such flash mob style protests have been practiced before. In 2004, thousands of people gathered on the streets of Shanghai, expressing anti-Japan sentiments. In June last year, a large scale demonstration broke out in Xiamen, protesting the building of a chemical factory in residential area.

A few days ago, another such protest broke out in Shanghai, humorously referred as "Taking a Walk Together", as there is no law against walking together. The purpose was to protest the building of a new maglev train line. The crowd is reported to be huge. They even chanted slogans and sang the national anthem together when confronted by police. Police detained, and soon released, a few people but was generally powerless with the crowd, who seem to be dispersing and gathering at random.

What is more remarkable, however, is that this time the event was reported in local media. Today, the main newspaper in the city, the Liberation Daily (解放日报), published an editorial addressing the issue. In a typical condescending tone, it lectured that while the government needs to listen to people's voices, people should use "normal and legal" channels to express them, instead of resorting to "street politics".

It wasn't a harsh editorial. But it has an all-too-familiar title: We Must Make a Clear-Cut Stand Against Street Politics 必须旗帜鲜明地反对街头政治). It echoes the most (in)famous People's Daily editorial, We Must Make a Clear-Cut Stand Against Turmoil, published on April 26, 1989. That editorial ignited the then-fledging student movement into a full-scale confrontation.

We haven't seen such language being used often since then.

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