China cracks down on protest threats, rounds up dissidents

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 20, 2011 

BEIJING _ Chinese officials on Sunday cracked down against protests, or rumors of them, sending police to detain dissidents and breakup public gatherings in the capital and Shanghai.

After Internet messages calling for demonstrations in 13 cities surfaced on Saturday, apparently from Chinese language sites based overseas, there were reports of activists being preemptively hauled away.

Very few Chinese responded, and in only a couple of cities, but Beijing’s authoritarian regime still mobilized large teams of police to ensure all remained quiet.

The heavy response by Chinese officials was a reminder of the government’s low tolerance for any hint of political discord. The country’s combination of surveillance, sophisticated management of information, and a willingness to deploy large numbers of security forces has so far allowed it to cut off even the most remote of challenges to the Chinese Communist Party.

After online messages spread on Saturday using the phrase “Jasmine Revolution,” a reference to the unrest in Tunisia that ousted the president there and inspired uprisings across the Arab world, Chinese police beefed up their presence. Users on Chinese messaging sites, and those able to access Twitter through special software, posted notes saying that university students were warned to stay away from trouble.

In the previous two days, state media had signaled that the government is looking to further exert its considerable capacity to maintain order.

On Friday, a key architect of the country’s Internet monitoring software told a state newspaper that the program, already regarded as among the most stringent in the world, should be strengthened.

The next day, President Hu Jintao urged a conference of officials in Beijing to improve “social management.” The state news service Xinhua said that “Hu stressed the importance of information network management, urging an improved management of the ‘virtual society’ and a better guidance of public opinions on Internet.”

When Sunday came, the protests fizzled into almost nothing. The overwhelming majority of Chinese residents probably had no idea they’d even been called for -- the websites used to advertise the protests are either blocked or heavily censored in China.

In Beijing, a crowd of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people showed up in front of a McDonald’s at the large Wangfujing shopping district downtown. But most of those present appeared to be journalists, plainclothes police or curious shoppers wondering why there were so many cameras.

One woman wearing Dior sunglasses stopped to ask if a celebrity was going to make an appearance.

After a few minutes, uniformed Beijing police began to file in, filming the crowd and asking people to move along. A man in a grey coat and black hat walked up the stairs of the McDonald’s carrying a handful of white flowers – apparently a nod to the Jasmine theme – and was grabbed by a plainclothes security officer and pushed to the side. The incident happened so quickly that many in the crowd didn’t see what had happened. A scrum of media and onlookers, holding cameras aloft, ran after the man and the plainclothes security contingent shoving him down a side street.

The Associated Press reported on Sunday that beyond the crowd in Beijing and a smaller one in Shanghai, other Chinese cities stayed quiet.

Standing in the crowd in Beijing on Sunday, one onlooker said he’d come hoping to see, or perhaps even take part in, a real protest. The young man, who asked that his name not be used, took a look around and said “It didn’t work.”

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