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Chinese authorities foil a call for mass protests

BEIJING -- It was, as one China observer called it, the revolution that wasn't.

On Saturday, websites run by overseas Chinese began circulating a mysterious call for a Jasmine Revolution, apparently taking the lead from the wave of mass demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa.  The Chinese campaign urged people to gather on Sunday afternoon in thirteen cities across the country, including Beijing and Shanghai, whereupon participants would shout:

"We want to eat.  We want to work.  We want houses.  We want fairness.  We want justice.  Protect private property. Maintain independent justice.  Start political reform.  Finish one party rule. Finish media censorship.  Freedom of news.  Long live freedom.  Long live democracy."

The hashtag #CN220, named after Sunday’s date, also began making an appearance on Twitter.

The would-be Jasmine Revolution

On Sunday, large crowds of people could be seen at the designated Beijing location -- a popular and heavily-congested shopping thoroughfare called Wangfujing, only blocks away from the site of Beijing’s last convulsion, the 1989 student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square -- but it was hard to tell how many were protesters.  Many were clearly journalists, carrying cameras and the like.  And this being China, where it doesn't take much to attract a crowd, onlookers or passersby stopped to gawk, thinking there might be a celebrity in attendance.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

A man is arrested by police after calls on social networks for a "Jasmine Revolution" protest in front of the Peace Cinema in downtown Shanghai on Sunday.

But the biggest indicator something was amiss were the ranks of uniformed and plainclothes Chinese police.  Some scuffling and pushing ensued, and at least one man carrying jasmine flowers was reported to have been taken away.  However, it didn't take long for everything to return to normal outside the McDonald’s restaurant.

Journalists in Shanghai reported similar scenes in their own city whilst no notable gatherings could be confirmed in the rest of the locations.

It would seem, however, the real action had been taking place offline.

A crackdown on activists was already in force across several cities by Sunday.  In Beijing, for example, dissidents confirmed they have been under surveillance or house arrest.  When we tried to reach one veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, he sent a text message saying, "Not convenient" to speak.  And one of the authors of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reforms and greater human rights (its most famous signatory is Liu Xiaobo, last year’s Nobel Peace Prizewinner), said he was instructed by Chinese police not to leave his home.

Senior leaders were busy all weekend, exhorting for tighter social controls.  On Saturday, President Hu Jintao called for stricter oversight of the "virtual society."  This was echoed at another meeting of government leaders on Sunday, in which provincial and ministerial-level government officials were urged to step up “social management.”

The virtual controls were also in place.  A mass text messaging service on China Mobile was not available in Beijing on Sunday, according to one report.  And all day Sunday, users of Weibo, China’s biggest microblog, complained of hiccups, and searches on Weibo and elsewhere online for the word "jasmine" were blocked or did not go through.

Eugene Hoshiko / AP

Police officers urge people to leave as they gather in front of a cinema that was a planned protest site in Shanghai on Sunday.

The Great Firewall in action

Heavy-handed it may all be given that no one seemed to heed the call for action, but these measures are all part and parcel of Beijing's predictable handling, too, of the coverage of tumult in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the region.  

Thus far, the Chinese government has been adept, wily, fast, and far tech savvier than their Middle Eastern and North African counterparts appear to have been when it comes to controlling the information flow on the Internet.  As writer Evgeny Morozov put it, protesters in Egypt "were blessed with a government that didn't know a tweet from a poke."

China, on the other hand, is believed to have the most sophisticated and wide-ranging Internet filtering system known as the Great Firewall. 

Not coincidentally, only days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a new plan to finance programs to help Internet users around the world, a rare interview with the father of China’s Great Firewall was published in a state-run Chinese newspaper. 

Although Fang Binxing refused to divulge how the firewall works, there were notable tidbits – including the revelation that he uses no fewer than six VPNs (virtual private networks), “but only to test which side wins.”

With additional reporting from Eric Baculinao and Bo Gu