FRAMINGHAM 3 MARCH 2011 - Recent online calls for mass protests have sent the Chinese government on the defensive, and while experts say the online activity probably won't lead to outright revolution, it could force China's leadership to be more responsive to social problems ailing the country.
Starting last month, an anonymous activist group began calling on the Chinese people to stage a "Jasmine Revolution", a reference to the anti-government protests that have erupted in the Middle East.
China had already blocked the site from which the calls to protest came. But the government has taken the extra step of preventing any mention of related terms. Searches for the word "Jasmine" have been blocked on microblog services, while users of social networking sites have been barred from posting any information related to the protest calls.
The Chinese government remains averse to protests or movements of any kind that might threaten the leadership. The Falun Gong spiritual movement, for example, was banned in China when it grew too big, and the government has maintained a watch on Tiananmen Square in Beijing ever since the protests there in 1989, when the Chinese government called in the military to squash a student-led democracy movement.
China's attempts to prevent unrest also extend to the mass communication abilities of the Internet, with any talk of government overthrow online immediately silenced. Chinese authorities even shut down the Internet in the western region of Xinjiang when ethnic rioting erupted there in 2009.
Although the recent protest calls have yet to spark demonstrations in China, the online activity has been powerful enough to force the Chinese government to take action, said David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project. "It's clearly shown the capacity of the Internet," Bandurski said. "It has the capacity to really pressure the leadership."
Since the protest calls were made, China has deployed large police forces across cities in China, harassed foreign journalists and arrested human rights activists.
The moves show that the Chinese government is clearly "cautious" about the Internet, Bandurski said.
The activists originally posted their protest calls on the Chinese political blog boxun.com. After it went offline, they set up a blog at blogspot.com where they wrote: "We learned that Chinese government employs hundreds of thousands of people to make overflow attacks on Boxun, VOA, Twitter and other websites, in order to block information about this movement."
Bandurski described the government's actions as "a kind of full-on assault," adding that: "The Chinese leadership is responding to this in a kind of draconian way with very clever systems of technical controls to stop the threat of people gathering."
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.