Voices Behind China's Protest Calls
SEOUL, South Korea -- Strolling past hip cafes, the young Chinese man in a white sports jacket and faded jeans looks like any other university student in the South Korean capital. But the laptop in his black backpack is a tool in a would-be revolution in China.
The 22-year-old computer science student is part of a group behind appeals that started popping up anonymously on the Internet seven weeks ago, calling on Chinese to stage peaceful protests to get the ruling Communist Party to move toward democracy.
Those calls 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.
The Associated Press tracked down the student and some of his colleagues, giving an inside look at one group of campaigners behind the online petitions, and how they use technology to operate behind the anonymity of the Internet.
The group is a network of 20 mostly highly educated, young Chinese with eight members inside China and 12 in more than half a dozen other countries.
Calling itself "The Initiators and Organizers 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.
Interviews with four members of the Initiators show similar evolutions: All are young people who 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.
"People born in the late '80s and the '90s 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," the lean, soft-spoken 22-year-old who goes by the Internet alias "Forest Intelligence" said in an interview at a cafe in Seoul's trendy Samcheong-dong district.
The group's calls for weekly demonstrations every Sunday in dozens of cities have attracted many onlookers and few outright protesters. Still, their impact is clear. The government has responded with more police on the streets, more Internet monitoring and the detention, disappearance or arrest of more than 200 people.
Artist and government critic Ai Weiwei appears to be the latest, taken into custody last weekend. The group said none of those detained have been involved with their protest calls.
Members of the group requested anonymity out of concern that they or their families might be targeted by the government, which maintains an extensive network of informants among student groups overseas. Most members know each other only by Internet 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.
"The revolution was started purely because of the failure of domestic affairs, not because of overseas forces," said "Hua Ge," a Columbia University graduate in classics who lives in New York and who, at 27, is one of the group's older members. He recruited the others.
The first online calls for a Chinese "Jasmine Revolution" – a Twitter post on Feb. 17 and a longer appeal on the U.S.-based Chinese news site Boxun.com on Feb. 19 – remain anonymous. Soon after they appeared, Hua Ge said that he, together with a man in China that 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, said Hua Ge.
"People need to have some change in their thinking," said the native of the central Chinese 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 online users, though 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 emails daily from participants in the country.
Outside China, members are in the U.S., France, Australia, Canada, South Korea and Japan, among other countries. "Forest Intelligence" oversees the recruitment of volunteers and maintains the website. "Xiaomo," a 24-year-old college student in Paris, collates comments from surveys. 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 concerns for their safety.
Hua Ge said the group also has consulted Wang Juntao, a prominent dissident sentenced to 13 years in prison for advising students during the 1989 pro-democracy protests centered on Tiananmen Square. Freed on medical parole in 1993, 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.
Online security is a major concern, and group members are constantly in touch. On Sunday, Forest Intelligence showed an AP reporter his laptop, which has a virtual machine installed – an operating system within the computer's normal operating system that provides an extra layer of protection against hackers.
As soon as he logged on, Skype and Gmail chat services blinked with new messages. "Are you back yet?" asked Xiaomo, who then relayed news that activist-artist Ai Weiwei was prevented from getting on a flight to Hong Kong. Less than an hour later, the news was posted on the group's website.
On Tuesday, the group released an Internet safety manual to help Chinese users circumvent censors and issued another statement deploring the current crackdown. It warned that if activists were not released by April 10, they would retaliate by using "search engine optimization" techniques so that when Chinese do online searches for names of officials, the results will link to reports about corruption.
The group has no illusions that change, if it does come, will happen 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."