At first, it seemed to be just another fleeting moment of paranoia, one of those seasonal episodes in which the censors work overtime and the usual suspects are rounded up.
This time, however, the crackdown by the Chinese government appears to have staying power — and some observers say it may have more to do with a power struggle within the Communist Party than any threat from without.
Since mid-February, authorities have rounded up dozens of activists, bloggers and intellectuals, the Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Human Rights Defenders said Thursday as it released a list of 26 detainees.
The Chinese government has made it harder to access foreign websites, blocking encryption software used to jump what it is colloquially known as the Great Firewall of China. It has disrupted access to Google's email service, Gmail. A bewildering host of new regulations (and enforcement of old ones) make it harder to start a new website, buy a cellphone without disclosing personal details or go out reporting on the streets of Beijing.
"Things are very strict right now. It is the most serious it has been since 1989," said Jin Zhong, a veteran political analyst based in Hong Kong, referring to the suppression of protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Jin believes Chinese authorities have been spooked by the uprisings in the Middle East and by anonymous calls circulated on the Internet for sympathy protests, even though attendance was sparse.
"The Communist Party feels like it is sitting on top of a volcano," Jin said. "The political situation is not so different as in Egypt or Libya. We are also an authoritarian country ruled by one party, and they fear the anger of the people."
But some China analysts believe the government's extreme reaction suggests that hard-liners are seizing the opportunity to elevate their own positions and to undermine any potential reformers, namely Premier Wen Jiabao. Wen caused a stir last year with a speech in Shenzhen calling for political reform, remarks he repeated during last month's gathering of the National People's Congress.
But Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People's Congress, who outranks Wen, told the parliamentary body last month that China would not give up one-party rule. "If we waver … the fruits of development that we have already achieved will be lost and the country could even fall into the abyss of civil strife."
The stakes are elevated by the upcoming transition of power in 2012, when President Hu Jintao is set to resign as party head to make way for the next generation of leadership.
"There is this struggle internally over the future of reforms. We've had this debate for a while and it has intensified since 2008," said David Bandurski, an analyst with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
Among those detained in the recent roundups are professors, writers, bloggers, homemakers, students and various public intellectuals, many of whom are known less for activism than criticism.
"These aren't your core dissidents," said Bandurski, who noted with some dismay that several named on the list Thursday were featured in a book, "China's Bold Bloggers," published last year by his group.
A 43-year-old writer from Sichuan province, Liu Xianbin, was handed a 10-year sentence last week on charges of "inciting subversion of state power," based largely on his writings for overseas China publications. Three other intellectuals from Sichuan have been arrested on similar charges in recent days.
Chinese authorities also have upped the ammunition in their ongoing struggle with Google — a company that the party-run People's Daily newspaper compared in a March 4 report to the opium traders who exploited China in the 19th century. Although the government denies doing so, Gmail service has been disrupted since mid-March.
"It's maddening," said Jim McGregor, a Beijing-based business consultant. "China holds itself to be a leader in international business. What does it say when you can't use your email?"