BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Police dispersed scores of people who gathered in central Beijing on Sunday after calls spread online across China urging pro-democracy gatherings inspired by protest rallies across the Middle East.
In the end, the small gatherings in Beijing and Shanghai turned out to be demonstrations of the Chinese authorities’ determination to snuff out even tepid challenges to Communist Party power.
On Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping street, about 100 people stood in front of a McDonald’s restaurant, slated to be the site of the protests, according to an Internet message that spread on Saturday urging gatherings in 13 cities.
“I’m trying to do something for my country, to show my power,” said a young university student in Beijing, when asked why he turned up outside McDonald’s.
The crowd, including quite a few curious onlookers, was confronted by police officers who pushed them away, shouting “move off, move off, don’t look anymore.” No one was arrested. One man said he got into a scuffle with the police after he picked up some flowers from the ground.
“I had just been visiting the Forbidden City as a tourist and I passed by here and then these people took me away,” said the man, who was wearing a grey coat, black cap and black glasses.
“Why would they take me away? I was just a passer-by,” said the man, who declined to be named. “What democracy is there?”
In Beijing and Shanghai, police cars and vans flanked the streets where the gatherings were supposed to take place. Teams of police and plainclothes officers shuffled crowds along.
In downtown Shanghai, three men who appeared to be in their 20s were taken to the police station near the Shanghai Peace Cinema after an altercation with police.
Two elderly people said they came to the venue to protest the country’s corrupt legal system and police brutality.
“We protest the unfairness of our legal system. They just arrest anyone indiscriminately and even beat them up,” said an elderly woman, who said she was angry about the government’s seizure of her home in 1996.
“What human rights do these people have? None at all. We don’t even have the right to walk. We don’t even have the right to talk,” added another unidentified elderly man.
The overseas Chinese “Boxun” website (www.peacehall.com) that spread word of the gatherings called for people to chant “we want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness”.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, about 20 to 30 police cars were parked outside the Guangzhou People’s Park, with two-and three-person police teams patrolling the park, said a report by Hong Kong radio broadcaster RTHK.
In the cities of Lanzhou, Chengdu and Harbin, crowds of police gathered in places where the demonstrations were supposed to take place, although there was no visible sign of any protest, according to Boxun.
Some dissidents and rights activists were reportedly detained ahead of the demonstrations, but it was unclear how many of the detentions were directly related to the demonstration call.
Telephone calls to prominent activists including Teng Biao and Zhang Jianping went unanswered on Sunday.
Xu Zhiyong, a law professor in Beijing who campaigns for greater civil rights through his Open Constitution Initiative, said he was briefly “restricted of his freedom” on Sunday but later released by authorities.
“It was apparently because of the Jasmine event today. But I wasn’t involved in that,” he said.
Mo Zhixu, a Beijing dissident, said he was also briefly held over the weekend. “Police were worried about a Jasmine Revolution. It’s absurd,” he said. “The call for revolution was an expression of hope, but it’s too early to speak of something like that happening.”
On Saturday, Chinese President Hu Jintao called for stricter government management of the Internet.
“To maintain the good atmosphere and the orderly development of micro-blogging, please do not discuss inappropriate topics,” said a posting from China’s Twitter-like website “Weibo”, run by Sina.com, early on Sunday.
The website has blocked discussion of Egypt. Over the weekend, message chains using the Chinese word for “Jasmine” — as in the Jasmine Revolutions in the Middle East — were blocked too.
“This seems to be a sort of joke,” said a university student, who only wanted to be known as Han. “I don’t think many people actually know what this parade stands for.” (Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan and Chris Buckley in BEIJING, Editing by Chris Buckley and Andrew Marshall)