By Heda Bayron
Chinese authorities appear to be nervous about the spread of protests that have toppled and threatened Middle Eastern and North African rulers in recent weeks.
The government has threatened to revoke visas and expel foreign journalists who report from certain busy areas of the country without prior approval.
Last Sunday, about 16 foreign journalists were detained and harassed by security forces in the Beijing shopping district of Wangfujing. The journalists were there to document a small gathering of people who responded to Internet calls for public gatherings to support the “Jasmine Revolution” in the Middle East and to call for reform in China. One American journalist was beaten so badly he was hospitalized.
Freedom of expression in China is already severely curtailed. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and many foreign broadcasters, like the Voice of America, are blocked, as are many foreign news Web sites.
But since the protests in the Middle East and North Africa shook long-entrenched governments there, China has stepped up efforts to prevent similar protests.
Gilles Lordet, research coordinator for Asia at Reporters without Borders in Paris, says China has increased its control over the media and government critics since human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October.
“It shows the nervousity [nervousness] of the government about demonstrations, about the possibility of that the demonstrations in the Middle East can have an impact on [a] network of human rights defenders, journalists and defenders of freedom of expression in China,” Lordet said. “We see that it is a policy that’s more and more strict since the attribution of the Nobel Prize to Liu Xiaobo in October. The situation of the Middle East increased the nervosity of the government on this subject.”
China’s communist party has ruled the country since 1949. The last mass anti-government protest in Beijing ended in bloodshed in 1989, when government forces fired at hundreds of students in Tiananmen Square. In 2008, unrest in Tibet was put down by the military, and in 2009, the government again suppressed riots in the Xinjiang autonomous region.
The organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders warned Thursday of a “new wave of frenzied repression in China. The group says many activists across China have been arrested or placed under house arrest for endangering state security and subversion related to calls for a Jasmine Revolution.
“I think we are seeing one of the harshest crackdowns in the last, probably, five years because if you look at how many people are under soft detention, there’s over a hundred,” said Wang Songlian, a research coordinator for the group. “That number is more or less the same as the period during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. But I think the difference here is that how quickly the government mobilized the police to put these activists under soft detention.”
The government under President Hu Jintao has stressed the importance of social harmony. It has spent heavily on advanced surveillance systems, Internet censorship and other ways to snuff out social unrest or dissent before they spread. Some political analysts say this makes it impossible to easily launch a challenge against the government.
A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Thursday the Chinese government has nothing to fear and any attempt to destabilize the country cannot succeed.
Some overseas Chinese Web sites have called for protests again this Sunday. However, it is unclear whether citizens in China can still see these messages.