How to Kill a Protest: Foxconn Solidarity Walk Epic Fail

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I trust that everyone is more or less up to speed with the goings-on down in South China with Foxconn, the manufacturing behemoth whose workers have been leaping off buildings at an alarming rate this year.

I’ve been somewhat remiss with the blogging this week as I wrap up my Boston trip (I will return to Beijing on Monday). Most of the recent commentary on the subject of Foxconn has been about its attempts to mollify the situation through wage increases. This, in turn, has fueled the writing of a large number of articles about staff costs in South China and the future of the manufacturing sector in the country.

Important topic, to be sure, and one that I’ll definitely get back to at some point. But to a more immediate subject — there has also been a great deal of fulminating locally about the Foxconn deaths and what it says about the state of workers rights in China.

Yesterday, some enterprising online activists tried to do something about it, calling for a staged “walking” event for solidarity at Beijing’s Zhongguancun area, which is the city’s top spot for computer hardware, including many Foxconn products.

These sites invited folks in Beijing to show up at Zhongguancun wearing black or gray (for mourning) and walk around (“???”). So far, sounds like a good plan, right? Unfortunately, as the word got out, things began to go wrong.

Unlucky Man With Gray Shirt Apprehended By Police

According to some online accounts (??), at some point during the day, the authorities got wind of the protest and mobilized a security team. The walkers were supposed to show up between 6:00 and 6:30pm, so the cops were in place by 5:00.

As you might expect, reports on the number of cops on site vary. The article I linked to above says “nearly a hundred” uniformed and plainclothes. If that is even close to being accurate, of course, it means that someone out there is really good at spotting plainclothes cops.

Let’s just say that if reports are even somewhat accurate, there were quite a few cops out at Zhongguancun yesterday, including several vehicles, with some police armed and others with video surveillance equipment. When you see a bunch of cops with video cameras, it’s probably a good idea to turn yourself around and go back home.

And this is exactly what happened. Not only were the cops tipped off to the protest, but the would-be protesters were tipped off to the police action and failed to show up. The cops waited around on the street and at at least one of the subway station exits, but by 8:00pm when nothing much materialized, they gave it up and left.

From the police perspective, I suppose, this was a great success. No public protest, no one hurt, no messy clean-up required. Much better than having to shut down an ongoing event and arrest demonstrators. Moreover, with a non-event like this, there is nothing to write about in the newspaper, so there is also nothing negative in the press.

From the activist perspective, this kind of thing has to be disheartening. The best and easiest way to organize is online, but when The Man is listening in on your conversation, it’s tough to call for an event without it being blown up beforehand.

Kind of makes me wonder how often this sort of thing happens, and we never hear about it?