BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao called on Saturday for stricter government management of the Internet while calls for gatherings inspired by uprisings in the Middle East spread on Chinese websites abroad.
The messages have scant chance of inspiring protests in China whose one-party government has plenty of censorship controls in place and where most Chinese have difficulty gaining access to overseas websites because of a censorship “fire wall.”
But Hu told a meeting attended by top Communist Party leaders that despite rising prosperity, China was facing deepening social conflicts that would test the party’s ability to maintain firm control.
Hu did not mention the Internet-fed unrest that has shaken authoritarian governments across the Middle East and unseated Egypt’s long-time President Hosni Mubarak. But he told Chinese officials they needed to come to grips with “virtual society” in their nation with some 450 million Internet users.
“At present, our country has an important strategic window for development, but is also in a period of magnified social conflicts,” Hu told the meeting at the Central Party School in northwest Beijing, which trains rising leaders.
Among the steps Beijing had to take to counter these risks, Hu said, one was “further strengthening and improving management of the Internet, improving the standard of management of virtual society, and establishing mechanisms to guide online public opinion.”
His comments came as messages spread overseas calling for gatherings across China on Sunday to demand sweeping democratic reforms inspired by the “Jasmine Revolution” in the Middle East.
“Launch political reform and end one-party dictatorship, free up the press for freedom of news,” said a message that proposed gatherings in 13 Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.
The calls underscored why China’s government, ruling the world’s biggest Internet-using population, is wary of loosening controls on online expression.
The latest battleground over Chinese Internet control is Twitter-like local websites where users shoot out bursts of 140 or so Chinese characters of opinion that censors can have a hard time keeping up with.
The biggest of these Chinese sites, run by Sina.com, has blocked discussion of Egypt. On Saturday, message chains using the Chinese word for “Jasmine” — as in the Jasmine Revolutions in the Middle East — were blocked too.
The overseas Chinese “Boxun” website (www.peacehall.com) that spread the calls for gatherings on Sunday was down on Saturday night Beijing time.
At that time, too, there were no outward signs of increased security around Wangfujing, the main shopping street in central Beijing where the online calls urged a gathering the next day.
Several prominent rights activists and lawyers have been detained over recent days, according to their families.
But Jin Bianling, the wife of Jiang Tianyong, a rights lawyer who has energetically challenged the government, said she saw no clear connection with his latest detention on Saturday and the online calls for protests.
“Some people have said to me it’s about those calls (for gatherings),” she told Reuters.
“But I think it was the other things he’s been doing. There are too many reasons they can use to detain people.”
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Michael Martina; editing by Michael Roddy