THE Chinese Government, rattled by protests sweeping the Middle East, swung into action yesterday to quash online calls for a “jasmine revolution” on the streets of Beijing and 12 other cities across the country.
Although very little happened in the way of protests at the appointed hour of 2pm, the internet rallying cry had clearly upset the authorities. Chinese mobile phone operators announced “technical issues” which stopped text messages being sent en masse.
With no angry crowds or placards visible in Beijing and only a three-man scuffle breaking out in Shanghai, the authorities’ tactics appear to have worked. Elsewhere, including the cities of Tianjin, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Chengdu, there were no reports of rallies. In the capital dissident protests were limited to a 25-year-old man placing a white jasmine flower outside the branch of McDonald’s where the protesters were to have met. Although police efforts to detain the man, Liu Xiaobai, were hampered by crowds, he appeared shaken.
“I’m quite scared because they took away my phone. I just put down some white flowers – what’s wrong with that?” he said. “I’m just a normal citizen and I just want peace.”
In Wangfujing Street, Beijing, where protesters had been urged to gather, it became difficult to separate the aggrieved from thousands of shoppers who had stopped to look at the police and foreign television cameras.
There was a strong police presence where protesters had been told to gather and more than a hundred known activists were detained before they could leave their homes.
China’s well-practiced cyber-censorship machinery roared swiftly into action to quell any unrest. On Weibo, the microblogging site similar to Twitter, the Government blocked searches for the word “jasmine” and prevented the uploading of photographs taken on mobile phones.
The source of the call for a “jasmine revolution” appears to be Boxun.com, a rights advocacy website based in the US. It was closed down after being attacked by hackers. Its slogan – “we want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness!” – was not heard on the day of action.
A few hailed the day’s activities as a useful dry run and suggested that protesters should meet every Sunday.
Chinese media have provided little coverage of events in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, underplaying the depth of anti-government feeling. Another strategy is to report on protests but then prevent people commenting in chatrooms and in microblogs, feared to be the biggest source of unrest.