x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Network of internet-savvy Chinese tries to spark Far-East ‘Arab spring'

Small groups of young, mostly highly educated Chinese scattered inside and outside the country are behind the online calls urging their countrymen and women to stage peaceful protests to get the ruling Communist Party to move towards democracy.

'Hua Ge', a Columbia University graduate, is a member of a group spreading anonymous calls online for pro-democracy protests in China.
'Hua Ge', a Columbia University graduate, is a member of a group spreading anonymous calls online for pro-democracy protests in China.

SEOUL // Behind some of the anonymous online appeals for pro-democracy protests in China that have worried the authoritarian government is a group of 20 mostly highly educated, internet savvy Chinese scattered inside and outside the country.

The online calls urging Chinese to stage peaceful protests to get the ruling Communist Party to move towards democracy have spooked the government into launching one of its broadest campaigns of repression in years to keep the protests from catching on, as they have in the Middle East and North Africa. Amid tight security, there have been few actual protests.

One group putting out the calls over the past seven weeks is a network of 20 mostly young Chinese, with eight members inside China and 12 in more than half a dozen other countries.

Calling itself "The Initiators and Organisers of the Chinese Jasmine Revolution" after a phrase used in the Tunisian uprising, the group is not the sole source of the protest calls; at least four others have sprung up. "The Initiators" group appears well-organised, with members assigned to recruit, manage social networking sites and gather feedback.

Interviews with four members show similar evolutions: they grew to resent the government's autocratic rule and China's widespread inequality and injustice. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt made change look possible.

One member, a lean, soft-spoken 22-year-old computer science student who goes by the online alias "Forest Intelligence" said during an interview at a cafe in Seoul: "People born in the late 1980s and the 1990s have basically decided that in their generation one-party rule cannot possibly outlive them, cannot possibly even continue in their lifetimes. This is for certain." While the calls for demonstrations every Sunday in dozens of cities have attracted many onlookers and few outright protesters, their impact is clear. The government has responded with more police on the streets, more intrusive internet monitoring and the detention, disappearance or arrest of more than 200 people. The group said none of those detained has been involved with their protest calls.

Members of the group requested anonymity out of concern that they or their families might be targeted for retribution by the government, which maintains an extensive network of informants among student groups overseas. Most members know each other only by their online nicknames.

They also are concerned that, with more than half their members outside China, their movement might be seen as a foreign-backed, anti-China plot rather than a response to real domestic problems.

"Hua Ge," a Columbia University graduate in classics who lives in New York and, at 27 years old, is one of the group's older members, and who recruited the others, said: "The revolution was started purely because of the failure of domestic affairs, not because of overseas forces."

The first online calls for a Chinese "Jasmine Revolution" - a Twitter post on February 17 and a longer appeal on the US-based Chinese news site Boxun.com on February 19 - remain anonymous. Soon after they appeared, "Hua Ge" said that he, together with a man in China he refused to identify, started the website Molihuaxingdong.blogspot.com.

"Molihuaxingdong" is Chinese for "Jasmine Movement" and it has evolved to include a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and Google groups for every Chinese province or territory. Many of the sites are blocked in China, but remain effective because so many Chinese know how to elude government blocks, "Hua Ge" said.

"People need to have some change in their thinking," said "Hua Ge", a native of the city of Wuhan. "They don't really understand what rights they have, or what kind of political future they can choose."

Their main Google group has more than 1,200 users, although how many are inside China is unclear. An online survey posted in February received 300 responses, mostly from people in China, members said, and the group gets 50 to 100 e-mails daily from participants in the country. Outside China, members are in France, Australia, Canada, South Korea and Japan, among other countries. "Forest Intelligence" oversees the recruitment of volunteers and maintains the website. "Xiaomo," 24, a university student in Paris, collates comments from surveys. The Boston-based student "Pamela Wang", 18, translates news articles into Chinese and is one of eight administrators of the group's Facebook page.

The eight members in China include an expert in online search engines, a former government employee who writes articles and someone who works on the website's layout, said "Hua Ge".

He refused to provide their contact information or reveal details about them out of concern for their safety.

"Hua Ge" said the group has also consulted Wang Juntao, a dissident sentenced to 13 years in prison for advising students during the 1989 pro-democracy protests. Freed on medical parole in 1993, Mr Wang now lives in New York and confirmed his assistance. Collectively, the group's postings are often clever with a touch of sarcasm. People are urged to "stroll" and "smile" rather than protest. "We are making a new history of revolution by a unique way: we use the sound of laughter, singing and salutations instead of the sound of guns, cannons and warplanes!" a notice dated March 1 said.

The group has no illusions that change will come soon, but is willing to wait years to gather momentum.

"Some people say this movement is going to die and this movement is not going to be successful like that in Tunisia or Egypt, but in those countries, it took three or four years for the people to make preparations and finally, there was a peaceful transition," "Hua Ge" said. "It may take a period of time for the people to wake up, so the longer we continue our efforts the more people will know about the situation and join us."