Michelle Obama’s visit to China, with daughters in tow, is all about soft power. But wherever the Obamas have gone, Chinese police have been on the streets ahead of them, exercising some extremely hard power against civilian protesters to clear the way.
Police have aggressively swept the path to the first lady’s speaking engagements—in which she has spoken of minority rights and freedom of expression—to prevent minority rights demonstrators from expressing themselves freely.
According to Radio Free Asia, security forces in Chengdu, beat and detained activists who lost their homes or farmland in government land grabs, out of fear that they would attempt to petition Mrs. Obama on the third stop in her tour. The clashes with police reportedly happened around 11:30 a.m. local time as activists were boarding a bus.
“We were just walking along the street, and some police came and…beat us up,” Yang Xiulan, one of the protesters, told RFA.
Veteran activist Huang Qi, the founder of Tianwang, a human rights organization, said authorities have taken a number of local activists on “forced vacation.” He explained, “Chinese people can’t get their grievances resolved, so they are forced to approach foreign leaders to defend their rights.”
This was one of two groups that were detained, not while gathering to protest, but simply making their way around town. Activist Chen Guoqiong, who was part of the second group arrested, claimed they were followed for days. “If you try to petition, they…send people to follow you, and they they take away your freedom,” Chen said in an article on the Tianwang site.
Mrs. Obama, at the start of her tour, touted Internet freedom. “It is so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media,” she said. “That’s how we discover the truth, that’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities, in our country and our world.”
Ironically, chatter related to her visit on Chinese social media was being heavily censored.
Also during the first lady’s visit, police knocked unconscious a guide at a tourist attraction in Xian. Several users on Sina Weibo managed to post photos that were taken from the scene where the Chinese tour guide had been knocked unconscious, claiming that the action was intentional.
This user says: “The People’s [Republic of China] police kicked the people!” and claims that the tour guide was moving out of the way as requested, but was then kicked to the ground by the police.
Land appropriation and forced evacuations—the sources of some of the disquiet—are long-standing grievances in China, primarily affecting rural villagers.
On Feb. 18, 2014, a team of more than 100 heavily armed city inspectors and police officers clashed with village protesters at the the demolition site of a newly built Buddhist temple in the Xiamen district.
The location was sold by authorities to developers without compensation for the villagers who collectively owned the land. Pictures and information were uploaded to Chinese Jasmine Revolution, a dissident website that frequently publishes posts related to Chinese policies, current events and social unrest.
Social media activity related to land protests are heavily censored on Chinese social networks like Sina Weibo. Activists often use a variety of alternative media to circumvent censorship and disseminate information related to their protests, which are a frequent occurrence in a several locations around China.
According to the website, an angry mob overturned two cars belonging to city officials, and then gathered to protest at the local governmental building resulting in the injury of at least 10 people, several of whom were elderly.