DAXING, China >> Do not be lulled by its intoxicating fragrance or the dainty, starlike blossoms whose whiteness suggests innocence and purity. Jasmine, a stalwart of Chinese tea and the subject of a celebrated folk song often heard while on hold with provincial bureaucrats, is not what it seems.
Since Tunisian revolutionaries this year anointed their successful revolt against the country’s dictatorial president the “Jasmine Revolution,” this flowering cousin of the olive tree has been branded a nefarious change-agent by the skittish men who keep the Chinese Communist Party in power.
Beginning in February, when anonymous calls for a Chinese “jasmine revolution” began circulating on the Internet, the Chinese characters for jasmine have been intermittently blocked in cellphone text messages while videos of President Hu Jintao singing “Mo Li Hua,” a Qing dynasty paean to the flower, have been plucked from the Web. Local officials, fearful of the flower’s destabilizing potency, canceled this summer’s China International Jasmine Cultural Festival in south China, said Wu Guangyan, manager of the Guangxi Jasmine Development and Investment Co.
Even if Chinese cities have been free from any whiff of revolutionary turmoil, the war on jasmine has not been without casualties, most notably the ever-expanding list of democracy advocates, bloggers and other would-be troublemakers who have been preemptively detained by public security agents, among them the artist provocateur Ai Weiwei, who remains in police custody after being seized at Beijing’s international airport last month.
Less well known are the tribulations endured by the tawny-skinned men and women who grow ornamental jasmine here in Daxing, a district on the rural fringe of the capital. They say prices have collapsed since March, when the police issued an open-ended jasmine ban at a number of retail and wholesale flower markets around Beijing.
Zhen Weizhong, 47, who tends 2,000 jasmine plants on about an acre of rented land here, said the knee-high potted variety were wholesaling for about 75 cents, one-third of last year’s price. “Even if I could sell them, I would lose money on every plant,” he said, glancing forlornly at a mound of unsold bushes whose blossoms were beginning to fade. Asked if he knew about the so-called jasmine revolution and whether it had played a role in collapsing demand, Zhen shrugged. “I don’t know anything about politics,” he said. “I don’t have time to watch television.”
Much like the initial calls on the Internet for protesters to “stroll silently holding a jasmine flower,” the floral ban is shrouded in some mystery. The Beijing Public Security Bureau, reached by phone, declined to answer questions about jasmine. But a number of cut flower and live plant business owners said they had been either visited by the police in early March or given directives indicating that it had become contraband.
Several of those who run stalls in one large plant outlet, the Sunhe Beidong flower market, said local police had called peddlers to a meeting and forced them to sign pledges to not carry jasmine; one vendor said she had been instructed to report to the authorities anyone even seeking to purchase jasmine and to jot down their license plate numbers. (She said she had yet to detect any subversives seeking to buy jasmine at her stall).
Although some vendors were given vague explanations for the jasmine freeze — that the plant was “symbolic” of those people who wanted to sow rebellion — most people involved in the flower trade have been largely left in the dark about why they should behave with such vigilance, and some professed ignorance of the ban altogether.
Thanks to a well-censored Internet, most Chinese have never heard of the protest calls in China, nor are they aware of the ensuing crackdown.
In the absence of concrete information, fantastical rumors have taken root. One wholesale flower vendor at the Jiuzhou Flower and Plant Trading Center in southern Beijing said he heard the ban had something to do with radiation contamination from Japan. A young woman hawking floral bouquets at Laitai, a large flower market near the United States Embassy, said she was told jasmine blossoms contained some unspecified poison that was killing people. “Perhaps you’d like some white roses instead?” she asked hopefully.
Wu Chuanzhen, 53, a farmer who tends eight greenhouses of jasmine on the outskirts of the city, said other growers had insisted adherents of Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement deemed an “evil cult” by the authorities, might use the flowers in their bid to overthrow the governing Communist Party. “I heard jasmine is the code word for the revolution,” she said. Her laughter suggested she thought such concerns were absurd.
Many sellers, however, were less than eager to discuss jasmine with a foreigner, particularly at the Sunhe Beidong market, where a policeman could be seen last month nosing around the bouquets. Most quickly steered the conversation to more promising topics. “You don’t want to buy jasmine. It’s just not trendy this year,” said one clerk at the Laitai market, pointing to pots of lavender and rosemary.
As is often the case in China, government controls have a tendency to wilt in the face of mercantile pressures. After two months with little sign of jasmine at the markets, a few vanloads of the plants, their branches thick with blossoms, began to show up at wholesale centers last week. They were priced so low, the buyers could not resist. One retailer, who asked that only her surname, Cui, be printed, acknowledged that the original order had not been officially lifted but that the authorities had yet to interfere.
Another vendor waved away talk of revolution and broke into a rendition of “Mo Li Hua,” a version of which was played each time medals were presented during 2008 Olympics in Beijing:
A beautiful jasmine flower,
A beautiful jasmine flower,
Perfumed blossoms fill the branch,
Fragrant and white for everyone’s delight.
Let me come and pick a blossom
To give to someone,
Jasmine flower, oh jasmine flower