As protests spread across the Middle East, China keeps a firm hand on protests at home

A small Internet posting in China triggered a massive response from the state this week, highlighting just how concerned the government is that citizens might be inspired by protesters in Egypt, Libya, or at home.

Andy Wong/AP
In this photo taken Sunday, police officers watch people gathering in front of a McDonald's restaurant which was a planned protest site for "Jasmine Revolution" in Beijing. A renewed call for Middle East-style democracy protests in China urged citizens to take an afternoon stroll at arranged locations each weekend and demanded that authorities release activists who apparently remained in custody Wednesday.

Few people in China have even heard about the Middle East upheavals that started with Tunisia's so-called Jasmine Revolution last month. But the authorities are taking no chances here, clamping down before major protests are able to take shape.

At least four people have been arrested in China on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” after reposting Internet messages calling for the launch of a Jasmine Revolution here, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

Dozens of activists have been detained or put under house arrest by Chinese police since last week, and several others simply disappeared in the days leading up to last weekend’s planned protests.

The Chinese government, always on the lookout for challenges to its rule, is particularly concerned about mass movements that threaten to link together the grievances of disparate groups or coordinate protests on a national level. While state media has been quick to dismiss the chances of a Middle East-style uprising in China, the extent to which state security agencies have mobilized to neutralize potential threats and disrupt planned demonstrations suggests that the Communist Party leadership is taking no chances.

Activists are picking up on this nervousness. Even though initial protests held on Feb. 21 fizzled, a new statement appeared on Boxun, a US-based Chinese language website, which is blocked in China, calling for the continuation of demonstrations this coming weekend and doubling the number of cities with planned protest sites.

"We hope to ride the democratic tide surging through North Africa and the Middle East, to push for transformation and reform in China and to change the injustice and inequality which is right before our eyes gradually becoming the status quo,” said the statement.

The letter, released today, also calls for demonstrators to “stroll, watch, or even just pretend to be passing by. So long as you are present, the authoritarian government will shake with fear.”

Not exactly Tiananmen Square

Only a handful of people participated nationwide in the protests on Sunday afternoon. In Beijing, would-be demonstrators who gathered at a McDonald’s on the Wangfujing Pedestrian Mall were vastly outnumbered by hordes of curious tourists, foreign journalists, and dozens of police and state security officers.

Asked why the Chinese government responded so forcefully, Li Datong, a well-connected former editor of a Communist Party publication, answered simply: “Fear."

“The government is fully aware that people don’t support it anymore," he says. "It has lost its social credibility.”

Slow and steady?

Mr. Li argues that even if the time is not yet right for the nationwide revolution, social conflicts in China are becoming more frequent and more intense.

According to the China Academy of Social Sciences, more than 60,000 mass incidents occurred in China in 2003 – 10 times more than in 1993. The government stopped releasing official figures in 2006.

Li explains that China – unlike democratic countries – lacks mechanisms to mitigate social conflict. Since most social conflicts are related to the government and its policies, he says, the government itself becomes the target.

“Other than suppressing dissent by force, the government has no other solution,” he warns.

The Chinese government has responded to recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt by tightening controls on information and restricting the movement of key activists. State media has pumped out a steady stream of articles and images from North Africa in support of the Communist Party’s central message that political demonstrations lead to chaos, violence, and social instability.

Senior party officials have kept quiet, but on Thursday Zhao Qizheng, former head of the State Council Information Office, told a Hong Kong newspaper, “There won’t be any Jasmine Revolution in China.”

Li disagrees: “There is a possibility of a nationwide revolution.”

He believes the only hope is in the new generation of Chinese leaders who will take office in 2012. “If they face reality and make adjustments, China can accomplish a peaceful transition.” Li predicts, “If they don’t, may God bless us."

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