World and Nation

China takes Middle East as example, calls for action and protests begin

BEIJING — The call to action shot across mobile phones and Internet chat sites, urging people to converge on 13 Chinese cities to demand an end to corruption, inflation, and the strictures of authoritarian rule.

“The Chinese people do not have the patience to wait any longer,” said one message.

The anonymous organizers got a sizeable turnout — but in China, most of those who poured into squares and shopping centers were police officers and plainclothes security agents.

Two months of upheaval in the Middle East have cast doubt on the staying power of all authoritarian governments. But in China, calls for change are so far being met with political controls wielded by authorities who, even during a period of rising prosperity and national pride, have not taken their staying power for granted.

The nearly instantaneous deployment of the police to prevent even notional gatherings in big cities the past two weeks is just one example of what Chinese officials call “stability maintenance,” a raft of policies and practices refined after “color revolutions” abroad and, at home, tens of thousands of demonstrations by workers and peasants, ethnic unrest in Tibetan and Uighur areas, and the spread of mobile communications and broadband networking.

Chinese officials charged with ensuring security, lavishly financed and permitted to operate above the law, have remained perpetually on edge, employing state-of-the art surveillance, technologically sophisticated censorship, and new crime-fighting tools, as well as proactive efforts to resolve labor and land disputes, all to prevent any organized or sustained resistance to single-party rule.

“It is a comprehensive call to arms for the entire bureaucracy to promote social stability,” said Murray Scot Tanner, a China security analyst at CNA, a private research group in Alexandria, Va.

Since the first widespread calls for Middle East-style demonstrations in China were published two weeks ago on a U.S. website that is blocked in China, the police have reacted with brutal efficiency. They have placed more than 100 dissidents and human rights campaigners under house arrest and threatened others who forwarded messages about the protests. They have also detained six prominent lawyers and activists on suspicion of inciting subversion. Censors have also intensified the filters on microblogs, already among the tightest in the world.

At an unpublicized meeting in February, the Politburo outlined heightened controls to prevent the type of revolts that toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia.