When I saw a uniformed policeman near the entrance to the cafe, I knew the Chinese government was nervous about the event we were planning there.
As president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, I had invited members and their friends to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo journalists, and to condemn the murders, at a event on Thursday evening. We planned to photograph and publicize the event on social media as part of an international “Je suis Charlie” solidarity campaign.
The e-mailed invitation had not gone unnoticed by the authorities. Within about an hour of its dispatch, plainclothes policemen showed up at The Bookworm cafe-bookstore, four hours before the appointed meeting. A half-dozen of the police installed themselves in the cafe manager’s office.
As crowds of journalists and sympathizers started packing the place, a short man with a security agent’s earpiece and a video camera circulated quietly, filming each of the participants.
My e-mail had made it clear that our concerns were limited to the tragedy in Paris. But any gathering in support of freedom of the press is suspect in the eyes of a Chinese policeman, especially when foreign journalists are involved.
Official Chinese reactions to the Paris massacre have shied away from the press freedom aspect of the tragedy. They have focused on the terrorist threat.
Beijing is battling separatists in the predominately Muslim western province of Xinjiang, some of whom have launched terror attacks on Chinese civilians over the past two years, killing more than 100, according to official figures.
In his message of condolence to French President François Hollande, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said that “terrorism is an enemy of all mankind and a common threat to the entire international community, including both China and France.”
China “stands ready to work with France and other countries to boost security and counter-terrorism cooperation,” President Xi added.
Western governments, unconvinced that China’s rule of law and Chinese police treatment of criminal suspects meet international standards, have been wary of cooperating too closely with Beijing on international terrorist issues.
And the Chinese government is less inclined to take press freedom as a common value it shares with the international community.
Indeed the Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party that often takes a nationalist position, wrote an editorial today saying the murders illustrated the pitfalls of press freedom.
“In these globalized times, when their acts contradict with the core values of other societies, the West should have the awareness to ease conflicts instead of heightening them in accordance with its own values in a zero-sum manner,” the Global Times said.
“If the West thinks of globalization as an absolute expansion and a victory of certain values, then it is in for endless trouble,” the paper predicted.
In the end, Thursday's event came off peacefully. We raised our “Je suis Charlie” posters, had our pictures taken, and that was it. The secret policemen gathered in the manager’s office – who had refused to identify themselves as policemen when I went to explain to them what we were doing in order to avoid misunderstandings – stayed a while and then slipped out quietly.
That’s what the Chinese government likes to call a “win-win” outcome.