An anonymous online campaign calling for pro-democracy demonstrations across China on Sunday has been met with the detention of human rights activists, greater Internet censorship and even veiled pressure on foreign journalists.
The strict response by authorities comes after a U.S.-based Chinese-language website, Boxun.com, called for repeated attempts each Sunday to launch a “jasmine revolution” in about two dozen cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.
The first planned attempt, which was held last Sunday, brought out a swarm of police and foreign media in some of the designated sites but provided no evidence the country was on the cusp of a popular uprising.
Still, with regimes toppling in North Africa and the Middle East, authorities in China deemed the threat strong enough to have interrogated, arrested and detained at home dozens of people suspected of fomenting the anti-government movement.
Human rights groups based outside China said Friday that police had charged five activists this week with “subversion of state power” and “inciting subversion of state power,” serious crimes that carry potentially decade-long prison sentences.
The five were Ran Yunfei, 46, a widely followed blogger and public intellectual; Ding Mao, 45, a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests who spent 10 years in jail; Hua Chunhui, 47, an insurance company manager who has advocated on civil society issues; Liang Haiyi, no age given, a woman accused of posting foreign links about the jasmine revolution on a popular Chinese instant-messaging service; and Chen Wei, 42, a leading human rights activist in central Sichaun province.
The arrests coincide with the disappearance this month of three human rights lawyers, Jiang Tianyong, Tang Jitian and Teng Biao.
“The numbers point to a bad situation that is only getting worse,” Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, said in a written statement. “In the matter of a few days, we have seen more cases of prominent lawyers subjected to prolonged disappearances, more criminal charges that may carry lengthy prison sentences for activists, more home raids, and a heavier reliance on extralegal measures.”
Supporters of the jasmine revolution have been communicating on Twitter, a site only accessible in China with circumvention software since it was blocked by Web censors in 2009. Many cautioned those who planned to attend demonstrations Sunday to be wary of police.
Authorities appear to have gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent a repeat of the Feb. 20 gathering outside a McDonalds in a busy Beijing shopping district. Metal corrugated fencing was erected outside the restaurant midweek, blocking the protest site. The same tactic was employed outside the home of Liu Xia, who is married to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
On Friday, several members of Beijing’s foreign media corps were telephoned by police and told they needed to apply with neighborhood councils to receive permission to conduct interviews.
The same level of sensitivity is being levied on the Internet, where even the Beijing neighborhood in which the protest is supposed to take place -- Wangfujing -- is banned from being searched on China’s most popular micro-blogging site, Sina Weibo.
That puts the popular tourist destination on a list of banned search terms that has expanded to include “Egypt,” “jasmine” and American ambassador Jon Huntsman, who sparked a controversy by briefly being seen at last Sunday’s gathering.
The social-networking site LinkedIn was also blocked by censors from late Thursday to Friday evening. It had reportedly carried messages about the protests.