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Approachably Abrasive

Posted by on April 28, 2012

Have you been to a protest lately? Tea Party? Occupy? …Vietnam?

We’ve all heard how protests are handled in China. Throughout my time there, I had heard from the locals and expats bits and pieces about this topic, solidifying my notions about protests being a no-no. In fact, I heard that all organized gatherings were outlawed—-even, say, a bible study in one’s home. (Though, there are state-sanctioned churches that are quite popular.)

So when on some random morning, upon hearing about an actual protest happening right up the street from where I was, I was eager to drop what I was doing and check it out for myself. And I learned firsthand that China can be an approachable and abrasive place to be.

A mere two blocks from my school, along a main street in Zhuhai, I arrived to the scene on this pleasant day to see people gathering around the gated entrance to a government building:

I’d say there were 150 people spread along the sidewalk, with the centerpiece being this entrance. For being protesters, they seemed pretty calm. There were no megaphones; no chants of “Hell no, we won’t go!” I guess they let their presence and a large banner do the speaking for them:

Chinese sources (okay, a couple co-workers) told me the banner said rural residents were having 'living problems' and complained the government wasn’t doing anything to help.

The sidewalk was cordoned off where the protesters gathered, and within they just sat and stood in the area talking, smoking, whatever. They did block the entrance, though; maybe that was their play. Two guards normally stood at attention at this entrance; today there were a few more guards scattered about, and as relaxed as the protesters.

About police in China: overall, my experience during my year was that they are relaxed and approachable—less of the tough-guy abrasion I’m used to with law enforcement. In fact, I walked by this same government complex a month prior and said hello to the at-attention guard. I didn’t expect his face to crack, but he lit up with a smile and said hello back. Another time I walked past shotgun-wielding 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 to “get you and your camera out of here”. However, the gunman just smiled and posed.

I gathered there’s kind of an all-or-nothing policing approach. The government keeps the country in a bubble and within it things are hunky-dorry. But threaten to pop the bubble and enforcement will squash. Protests (and almost all organized gatherings) are officially seen as potential bursts. But evidently, even for protests, the government, as they’ve done in so many other areas of life in China, has loosened up. As long as anyone didn’t cause any more of a scene, things looked to be peaceful on this day.

Oh, and as long word didn’t spread that dissenters were commonplace. I suppose this was why a foreigner with a camera turned a head or two. Media, in China, is seen as oxygen to a flame.

I figured I could get away with a couple shots before they asked me to leave. That’s pretty much what happened. As I started shooting, the officers whispered to each other and pointed in my direction. (This gave me the willies.) Many of the protesters looked my way, too. For just a minute 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.

No-Brandon's land

I didn’t bite, though, and just then police came over to ask me to leave. There were 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 responded to the man in my personal space.

During my escorted exit, the protesters then crossed the line from potential to actual trouble. Walking away, I looked out to the street to see what appeared to be an attempt to block traffic. The plain-clothes fella started pushing me along then and followed me a good 100 feet past this action. When I looked back, busses were honking and cops were in the street redirecting traffic. The protesters seemed to manage a little chaos.

See for yourself:

And as I left, I saw I wasn’t the only photographer at the scene:

Kinda freaked me out a little, thinking I'd be pretty easy to spot.

Later that evening, I rode past the scene to see that everything was back to normal. It’s like it never happened. Indeed, I asked a Chinese friend to read the news online to see if this 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 how they want it to be around here.

For a people that rely so heavily on government—-for morale, security, and identity—-you’d think there’d be more reasons for protest and controversy. Yet few are had. It’s weird to bring up complacency in a post about a protest, but there’s a real disparity between citizen action in China and in other countries. Most of my non-Chinese acquaintances easily got around the Internet blocks and even watched blocked American TV somehow. The Chinese, though certainly able, just didn’t seem interested in breaching the bubble. The government provides the citizens with Internet equivalents to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. If I mentioned a good article that was on a blocked site, a Chinese friend would just nod with no intention of subverting.

Prior to coming to China, I had heard much about the restrictive government. And it’s true, the government is effective at blocking media, crowd control, etc. But I think the biggest factor is a public that’s compliant. And I find it all an interesting example of how the government also actually obeys the will of the people.

I try to say all this as neutrally as I can. Because one thing 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 but also more freeing. It’s approachably abrasive. And recognizing this polarizing reality helps you better understand China…and all people.

’til next week,


p.s. Guess what? I’m putting together a picture book covering my entire year in China. All this material, and much more, will be featured. :) Stay tuned.

2 Responses to Approachably Abrasive

  1. Luke

    really interesting post. thank you for the insight into this culture. it is so difficult to filter through the media to hear the real story. i appreciate hearing your first hand experience. There are many americans who prefer their bubble not to be burst either.