BEIJING — China has detained top activists and deployed heavy security in large cities after the launch of a web campaign calling for protests echoing popular uprisings in the Arab world, campaigners said on Sunday.
Up to 100 leading Chinese rights lawyers and activists have disappeared since Saturday with police also descending onto protest sites around the nation, ready to put down any unrest, campaigners said.
The government appeared to be censoring Internet and text messages calling for the demonstrations, revealing deep-seated concerns among Chinese leaders over the possibility of Arab-style protests spreading to China.
“We welcome… laid off workers and victims of forced evictions to participate in demonstrations, shout slogans and seek freedom, democracy and political reform to end ‘one party rule’,” one Internet posting said.
The postings, many of which appeared to have originated on overseas websites run by exiled Chinese political activists, called for protests in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and 10 other major Chinese cities.
Protesters were urged to shout slogans including “We want food to eat”, “We want work”, “We want housing”, “We want justice”, “Long live freedom” and “Long live democracy”.
In Beijing’s central Wangfujing shopping district where protesters were told to gather, there was a massive police presence but no overt demonstration.
At least two people were seen being taken away by police, one for cursing at the authorities and another who was shouting: “I want food to eat.”
Up to 300 uniformed and plain-clothed police dispersed and videotaped shoppers, onlookers and foreign journalists, with scores of uniformed policemen arriving and leaving the scene as crowds swelled and receded.
Xinhua news agency reported that crowds dispersed in Beijing and Shanghai after police arrived, with at least three people detained in Shanghai.
According to postings on web forums, only a few demonstrators appeared in other cities, although large police contingents were seen at designated protest spots in Shanghai, Harbin, Guangzhou and Chengdu.
“I don’t think the call to protest was serious, no one really intended to protest because there are too many police,” leading rights lawyer Li Jinsong told AFP.
“By taking this so seriously, police are showing how concerned they are that the Jasmine Revolution could influence China’s social stability,” referring to the revolt in Tunisia that kicked off similar uprisings in the Arab world.
As the word spread on the demonstrations, numerous political dissidents and rights lawyers were placed in police custody, activists said.
“Many rights defenders have disappeared (into police custody) in recent days, others are under house arrest and their mobile phones are blocked,” rights lawyer Ni Yulan told AFP.
“The police detachment outside my door has increased. They follow us if we go out,” Ni said of the surveillance on her and her husband.
Telephone calls to prominent rights lawyers including Teng Biao, Xu Zhiyong and Jiang Tianyong went unanswered on Sunday. Friends and other activists said they had been detained by police.
According to the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, up to 100 activists had been detained, “disappeared” or placed under house arrest in Beijing, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Guizhou, Hunan, Shanghai and other localities.
“This is linked to the calls for a Jasmine Revolution,” the Hong Kong-based group said in a statement.
Chinese authorities have sought to restrict media reports on political turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East.
Searches Sunday for “Jasmine Revolution” on China’s Twitter-like micro-blogging site Weibo produced no results, while messages on the popular Baidu search engine said that due to laws and regulations such results were unavailable.
Some Chinese Internet search pages listed “jasmine” postings but links to them were blocked. Mobile text messages including the word “jasmine” also appeared to be blocked by mobile phone operators.
The Chinese government has deployed tremendous resources to police the Internet and block anti-government postings and other politically sensitive material with a system known as the “Great Firewall of China”.
In a speech Saturday, President Hu Jintao acknowledged growing social unrest in China and urged the ruling Communist Party to better safeguard stability.