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A man is arrested by police after internet social networks called to join a "Jasmine Revolution" protest in front of the Peace Cinema in downtown Shanghai February 20, 2011. - A man is arrested by police after internet social networks called to join a "Jasmine Revolution" protest in front of the Peace Cinema in downtown Shanghai February 20, 2011. | Carlos Barria/Reuters

China halts online call for a ‘jasmine revolution’

MARK MacKINNON

BEIJING— From Monday's Globe and Mail

Chinese authorities squelched online calls for a “jasmine revolution,” and quickly dispersed small crowds that gathered in Beijing and Shanghai in an apparent attempt to spark an uprising similar to those roiling the Middle East and North Africa.

Dozens of activists were detained, mass text messages were jammed and searches for the word “jasmine” were blocked on Chinese micro-blogging websites after a mysterious call to revolt spread over Twitter and other social-networking sites on Saturday and Sunday. Talk of a “jasmine revolution” in China originated first on the U.S.-based boxun.com website, which posted protest times and gathering places for 13 cities around China.

In Beijing, a small crowd of about 200 people heeded the call to gather Sunday afternoon in front of a McDonald’s restaurant on the city’s Wangfujing pedestrian mall, only a short walk from Tiananmen Square. However many appeared to be only curious onlookers and there were no slogans or placards. The crowd was surrounded by a similar number of plainclothes and uniformed police officers.

One man placed a white jasmine flower in front of McDonald’s – an apparent reference to the popular uprising in Tunisia earlier this year, which some dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution” – and was quickly set upon by police, only to be released after a crowd of journalists rushed forward to record the scene. The rest of the crowd peacefully dispersed an hour later after being asked by police to clear the road.

There was similarly brief demonstration in Shanghai, but no reports of any gatherings in the other 11 cities named on boxun.com.

Despite the low turnout, supporters claimed the movement would continue to grow, referencing the lengthy street campaign that finally ousted former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. “The mummies were all liberated, what about the terracotta warriors? The revolution has not succeeded yet, (we should) work on it next week!” one Twitter user posted using the account name Jasmine2010220.

“It was the first time to try to organize something like this, in different cities in China, over the Internet. I think it was a success. People built up the courage to go out and confront the police,” said Watson Meng, founding editor of boxun.com. “I think there will be more.”

There was little but the jasmine connecting the gatherings in China to the revolutions in the Middle East. China has delivered rapid economic growth to its citizens in recent decades, rather than the stagnation that fuelled dissent in Egypt and elsewhere. And where regimes of the Middle East seemed caught off guard by protests organized over sites such as Twitter and Facebook, China’s ruling Communist Party presides over the world’s most sophisticated Internet blocking and snooping technologies.

Though China sees tens of thousands of small-scale protests every year – most of them tied to very local issues – the Communist Party has not faced large-scale demonstrations since the military opened fire on pro-democracy protesters on and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Beijing is nonetheless worried that rising food and housing prices could provide a trigger for new unrest. President Hu Jintao said in a speech on Saturday that the government needed to take further steps to tighten its control over the flow of information, particularly online among China’s “virtual society” – an estimated 450 million Internet users.

“At present, our country has an important strategic window for development, but is also in a period of magnified social conflicts,” Mr. Hu told a meeting at the Central Party School, which trains rising leaders. Mr. Hu said Beijing needed “further strengthening and improving management of the Internet, improving the standard of management of virtual society, and establishing mechanisms to guide online public opinion.”

State media in China have emphasized the anarchy and chaos resulting from the uprisings in the Middle East, rather than the euphoria on display on the streets of Egypt and Tunisia after unpopular dictators were overthrown. During the height of the demonstrations in Cairo, searches for the word “Egypt” were blocked on some Chinese search engines.