By Adrienne Mong and Eric Baculinao
BEIJING--Elsewhere in the country, the would-be Jasmine rallies seemed to have met the same fate as in Beijing.
Our colleagues in Harbin said no one turned up at the appointed locations — although that may well have been due to the frigid conditions as the city lies in China’s far northeast.
There was a massive turnout in Shanghai, where at least seven men were detained. It was not clear whether they were protesters or journalists, but people professing to be participants in the rally were quoted by several news outlets.
Meantime, the crackdown continued on dissidents.
Housing rights activist Ni Yulan said she could not follow the news as authorities have kept her Internet connection cut off since she was released from detention last year. She revealed that U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., visited her early last month to express concern over her situation.
“I heard about this “jasmine” thing from others, but I don’t think it is possible in China,” she told NBC News.
“I don’t really pay much attention to this “jasmine” thing,” said Xu Zhiyong, a human rights lawyer. “But still the authorities are restricting my movements.”
Others dismissed the “Jasmine rallies” as a joke.
“It was not a call for real revolution," said a veteran from the 1989 Tiananmen protests who did wish to be identified. "It was just to make fun."
Dissident writer and physicist Dr. Jiang Qisheng concurred, saying the whole affair “was really meant to make fun of authorities.” Jiang spent 17 months in prison after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and signed the controversial Charter '08, an online petition calling for an end to one-party rule and greater civil and human rights.
“I was not planning to join this protest, but, just the same, authorities are checking on me almost every day to control my activities,” he told NBC News.
But for the Chinese authorities this is no joke.
In addition to the gravity of the matter demonstrated in the overwhelming police presence in central Beijing today, Premier Wen Jiabao held an online question and answer session with Chinese netizens early this morning.
It was his third ever such webchat and suggested the Chinese leadership had decided on a two-pronged approach to squelch the would-be protests: a sophisticated propaganda effort as well as a heavy-handed security clampdown.
Wen’s remarks — which focused on the nation’s economic growth alongside social justice and environmental protection and pledged the government would control soaring inflation and real estate prices — were broadcast repeatedly on state radio, television, and the Internet all day.
Some of those issues touched on by Wen are highly sensitive topics that weigh on many ordinary Chinese, especially rising food prices over the past year and sky-high property prices that are out of the reach of most urban residents.
It should be noted this is a sensitive time for the Chinese central government. Next week sees the start of the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Both are nominally elected government bodies that rubberstamp legislative and policy proposals. With such a high-profile gathering of government officials, the capital is typically put on high security alert.