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Online calls for protests put China on the defensive

Michael Kan | March 3, 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.

The activists behind the protest calls are urging the Chinese people to bring forth democracy in the country and have called for new rallies this Sunday, March 6.

Activists contacted for this story declined to answer questions. "At this point, none of us can reveal the personal identities nor the locations or number of people working on this," one of the organizers said.

The recent online protest calls, however, are not as serious as previous attempts at reform, said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch. The online activity "seems to me to have been an opportunistic move by people mostly based outside of China," he said.

"What makes the Chinese authorities nervous is not the call itself, but the realization with the Middle East revolts that the Internet can actually play a major role in triggering protests," he said.

China has the world's largest Internet population with 457 million Internet users. The country is notorious for taking down or blocking politically sensitive content on the web. U.S. sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all inaccessible, although users can pay for online services that allow them to get past Chinese Internet censors.

The Chinese government also exercises strict control over news. In the case of the anti-government protests in Egypt, it restricted information related to the event, with coverage limited to photos and short articles.

While the Chinese government does not tolerate open calls for revolution, "Chinese cyberspace is full of views critical of officials and government policies," said Wenran Jiang, a professor at the University of Alberta. "The government, while controlling the Internet, also gets feedback from the masses and responds to those complaints in order to defuse crises."

This happened on Sunday when China's Premier Wen Jiabao answered questions from Internet users during a two-hour webcast. Wen said that the government would tackle the challenges of inflation, rising housing prices and corruption.

Wen has spoken in similar webcasts before. But the timing of the appearance suggests that the government wanted to address the current tensions, experts said.

"These are as close as you get to town hall meetings in the U.S.," said Jiang. "In that sense, the growth of the Internet in China is a positive story, and it has played a role in putting the government on alert and forced it to be more responsive."

The recent protest calls for a Jasmine revolution, however, just add to the mounting pressures facing the Chinese government, experts say.

 

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