Large numbers of police — and new tactics like shrill whistles and street cleaning trucks — squelched overt protests in China for a second Sunday in a row after more calls came for peaceful gatherings modeled on recent democratic movements in the Middle East.
Near Shanghai’s People’s Square, uniformed police blew whistles nonstop and shouted at people to keep moving, though about 200 people — a combination of onlookers and quiet sympathizers who formed a larger crowd than a week ago — braved the shrill noise. In Beijing, trucks normally used to water the streets drove repeatedly up the busy commercial shopping district spraying water and keeping crowds pressed to the edges.
Foreign journalists met with tighter police controls. In Shanghai, authorities called foreign reporters Sunday indirectly warning them to stay away from the protest sites, while police in Beijing followed some reporters and blocked those with cameras from entering the Wangfujing shopping street where protests were called.
China police prevent “Jasmine” demos (AP Raw Video)
Bloomberg News said at least five men who appeared to be plainclothes security assaulted one of its reporters, confiscated his video camera and detained him in a store until uniformed police arrived.
While it isn’t clear how many people — if any at all — came to protest, the outsized response compared with last week shows how the mysterious calls for protest have left the authoritarian government on edge. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia where popular frustrations with economic malaise added fuel to popular protests to oust autocratic leaders, China has a booming economy and rising living standards. Still, the leadership is battling inflation and worries that democratic movements could take root if unchallenged.
“Rapid inflation affects people’s livelihoods and may affect social stability,” Premier Wen Jiabao said in an online chat Sunday. While he did not mention the Middle East, he later added: “I know the impact that prices can cause a country and am deeply aware of its extreme importance.”
Online posts of unknown origin that first circulated on an overseas Chinese news website 10 days ago have called for Chinese to gather peacefully at sites every Sunday in a show of people power meant to promote fairness and democracy. A renewed call this week expanded the target cities to 27, from 13.
People reached by phone at businesses in the cities of Tianjin, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Shenyang and Harbin said no demonstrations occurred.
Beyond the several Web postings, the calls lack a clear leader or organization and a well-defined agenda — ingredients experts say are crucial to the success of protest movements. China’s extensive Internet filtering and monitoring mean that most Chinese are unaware of the appeals, effectively limiting the audience.
Police have questioned, placed under house arrest and detained more than 100 people, according to rights groups. At least five have been detained on subversion or national security charges, in some cases for passing on information about the protest calls.
Pressure to tamp down protest is higher in Beijing. Senior politicians from around the country converge on the capital this week for the legislature’s annual session and a simultaneous meeting of a top advisory body — events that always bring high security.
Police seemed to outnumber pedestrians at Wangfujing. Groups of men with earpieces crowded the seats near the window of a KFC outlet scanning the street outside.
After blocking entrance to Wangfujing, police took away foreign news photographers, camera crews and reporters from The Associated Press, the BBC, Voice of America, German state broadcasters ARD and ZDF, and others. They were taken to an office where they were told special permission was needed to report from Wangfujing. In doing so, the government appears to be extending a ban on reporting at Tiananmen Square and reinterpreting more relaxed rules put in place ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.