Despite much anticipation in the foreign media, Chinese citizens did not follow in the steps of Tunisia or Egypt and rise up. When a group of what appeared to be overseas Chinese dissidents attempted to ride the revolutionary wave by posting an appeal to protest on US site Boxun.com, the targeted protest sites were quickly blanketed by security forces; Boxun itself came under sustained attack by hackers.
Foreign reporters who attempted to cover the non-events were in most cases simply prevented from getting anywhere close; of those who did, several were subjected to violence by plainclothes policemen, and one was beaten with a broomstick. The following week, at a regularly scheduled Foreign Ministry press conference, the ministry spokesperson expressed little regret for the violence, and suggested that reporters had failed to apply for permission to visit the area.
There were indeed Chinese visitors to the designated sites, most of which happened to be high-traffic destinations that the government could not easily close. But there seemed to be little need for the heavy show of force that was ultimately deployed – the security forces effectively created the only drama worth reporting themselves by beating reporters.
Most Chinese citizens remain as unaware of the treatment of foreign journalists as they were of the call to revolution – local press was silent on both. As for news about the Middle East, state media read from a tight script, which focused on chaos, violence and economic disruption, backed up by estimates of the high price tag of instability.
Were the calls to revolution a complete failure? Various theories have circulated. One is that the whole scheme was successful provocation by Chinese intelligence services designed to draw dissidents out into the daylight where they could be swatted. If so, it was a failure: There was no large protest movement.
Another conspiracy theory is that provoking Beijing into overreaction was the goal. Some of the messages called for activists to protest by “walking and smiling.” This likely resulted in security forces apprehending the clueless by accident, and the spectacle of hundreds of goons lurking around public squares and assaulting foreign journalists did fresh damage to Beijing’s reputation abroad.
It also prompted Premier Wen Jiabao to make additional commitments to political reform: “Without political reform, economic reform cannot succeed and the achievements we have made may be lost,” he said at a March 14 press conference.
But the Party is not betting on liberalization. In the 12th Five-Year Plan, it will spend US$95 billion on internal security, US$350 million more than on national defense.