It's difficult to see Beijing clearly from Manhattan


A chain of events:

Act 1. The New York Times publishes an article titled 'A Hundred Cellphones Bloom, and Chinese Take to the Streets', a headline that combines two things of which non-Chinese newspaper editors can't get enough, when talking about China: Mao era sayings, and Chinese people taking to the streets. Two excerpts:

"Chain letter" e-mail and text messages urged people to boycott Japanese products or sign online petitions opposing Japanese ascension to the United Nations Security Council. Information about protests, including marching routes, was posted online or forwarded by e-mail. Banned video footage of protest violence in Shanghai could be downloaded off the Internet.

"Text messages, instant messaging and Internet bulletin boards have been the main channels for discussing this issue," said Fang Xingdong, chairman of, a Web site for China's growing community of bloggers. "Ten years ago, this would have been unthinkable."...

..."If people can mobilize in cyberspace in such a short time on this subject," said Wenran Jiang, a scholar with a specialty in China-Japan relations, "what prevents them from being mobilized on another topic, any topic, in the near future?"

Act 2. New York-based blogger Jeff 'Buzz Machine' Jarvis links to the article, and comments:

Smart mobs are not just some cute cult of the cellphone. They are, indeed, a force.

Jarvis is an obsessive and often interesting commentor on the way new media (blogs etc.) are forcing change upon old (TV, newspapers et al.), but you don't read him for China coverage.

Act 3. Some guy named Tony posts a comment on Jarvis' blog:

With the advent of cell phone technology, along with computers no stone will go un-turned. I seriously doubt that the Chinese government (or any government) will be able to stop this communications landslide.

Nice story you have there gentlemen. Aside from these two problems:

A. Most urban Chinese youth are not interested in overthrowing the government, even if they occasionally exert their youthful energies with an anti-Japanese protest.

The type of people who were demonstrating aginst Japan are comfortable urban people. For many of them, it would be a big sacrifice if they had to get rid of all the Japanese electronic gear they own. On the other hand, there are people in China, poor people with nothing to lose, who are willing to run amok in anti-authority demonstrations (check out this village riot at Huankantou for example — background description; photos), but peasant demonstrations are always relegated to an obscure section of the New York Times and the Guardian and don't even make it into the Chinese media or the London Times, let alone and Drudge, which both covered anti-Japanese demonstrations. Even if ten thousand peasants throw stones at the cops, it's not going to change the status quo, nor pique the interest of the average American, or Frenchman.

B. The mobs have mobile phones. The cops have whatever the hell electronic gear they keep in the van pictured above, which was photographed near the Japanese embassy a few hours before the Beijing demonstrators arrived there on April 9.

In addition to the pictured high-tech truck, keeping watch over all the demonstrators were hundreds upon hundreds of armed riot police, as well as scores of ordinary cops and, no doubt, their plainclothes brethren. This was one anti-Japanese demonstration that was not going to get out of hand.

Furthermore, somebody had arranged scores of buses to help take demonstrators home after the afternoon's fun. People were not coerced into getting on the buses, but you know how it is: you've walked several miles to the Japanese embassy in the springtime sun, and you've chanted slogans all day, then the cool spring evening air hits and you're feeling tired and a little chilly, why not get on the bus?

What's the moral of the story?

'A Hundred Cellphones Bloom, and Chinese Take to the Streets' is a great headline for Manhattan, but meaningless in Beijing.

New York Times: A Hundred Cellphones Bloom, and Chinese Take to the Streets
Jeff Jarvis' Buzz Machine: Smart Mobs

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