There was widespread indignation after videos showing police officers abusing protesters in Lu’an were posted on Chinese social network Weibo. While the Chinese government quickly censored these images, they were too late: the news had already spread across China.
Censorship makes it hard to know exactly what happened. To what extent has the version printed by official media outlets been watered down?
On May 27, professors and teachers gathered in Lu’an, a town in the rural province of Anhui in eastern China, to protest against their low pay and lack of job security. However, the police quickly clamped down on the protests. At the time that this article was written, only a few videos of the clampdown (the least violent ones) were still visible on Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging platform.
However, Chinese dissidents continue to share these videos and criticise the repression on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Because these platforms are all banned in China, these dissidents are either posting from abroad or using a VPN to get around these restrictions in their country.
On YouTube – which usually manages to escape censorship by the Chinese authorities – a compilation of violent scenes said to have been filmed during the protests on May 27 were still visible several days later, on May 30. However, YouTube later reported that the videos were taken down by the user who uploaded them.
The first video was a compilation of scenes filmed during the protest. You can see police brutally attacking protesters. It had been downloaded from Twitter and shared on YouTube.
The authorities claimed that there were 40 protesters. Some Chinese media outlets, however, claimed that there were as many as 200. However, these media outlets were censored and any videos that seemed to show more than 40 protesters quickly disappeared from the Chinese web. However, you can still find them on Twitter.
About a hundred retired professors gathered three days later on Wednesday, May 30. This time, the information didn’t leak on the Chinese web. However, it was reported by several different media outlets based outside of China like Radio Free Asia and there were a few discussions on forums.
For their part, official media outlets tried to calm the tensions by trying to diminish the responsibility of the local police. While they did say that the police “supposedly applied the law in a brutal manner”, they remained vague on the nature of the police actions.
However, in a rare admission, the Lu’an city hall apologised for the incident and the city’s office of Public Security said that it had launched an investigation after receiving accusations that the police had used violence on protesters.
“Censorship is more and more efficient”
Marie Holzman, a Paris-based professor who specialises in contemporary China and Chinese dissidence, says it is surprising that information about this protest was leaked and eventually even shared on Western social media.
Chinese censorship has become more and more efficient since Xi Jinping became president in 2012. Before, dissident journalists like Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu [Editor’s note: a couple who are both activists and journalists and who were awarded the Reporters Without Borders-TV5-Monde prize in 2016] or Huangqi provided us with information each day on the circumstances, the goal, the demands and the reaction of the authorities.
For 18 years, Huangqi ran the website 64tianwang, one of the most well-known opposition sites. Today, however, most of these journalists and bloggers are in prison. This makes it quite exceptional that an event like this was shared across China and even reached Western media.
In this case, the police abused the protesters, throwing them on the ground. The footage is brutal. Despite the evolution of modern Chinese society, which is more and more materialistic, people still do maintain respect for professors. When something really shocking emerges, it is normal that it spreads across the country.”
“When they say that there was a protest because the professors hadn’t been paid, I can believe it”
The situation for professors and teachers in rural areas is particularly difficult.
In the 1950s, Mao Zedong established the Hukou system, which legally separated urban and rural areas, creating different rules for each.
Through this system, which is still in practice, the state finances education in large cities, but in the countryside and in small towns, it is local communities and families that are in charge of schools. Many of these communities are poor and there isn’t much economic activity. Some communities are more or less bankrupt and there is no money left to pay teachers.
Furthermore, the question of education has been tense for some time in China. The Chinese government supposedly invested three billion dollars [€2.57 billion] to bring in foreign students and pay for their studies, even though Chinese students usually have to depend on their families to pay sky-high school fees and tuition.
In the meantime, people are up in arms about the fact that professors’ salaries remain extremely low. So when someone says that there was a protest because teachers haven’t been paid, I can believe it for all these reasons.