China responds to protest threat with heavy police deployment

The Chinese government deployed hundreds of police officers, security personnel and even a fleet of water-spraying street-cleaning vehicles in the heart of Beijing on Sunday, sweeping the city’s main shopping street clear of pedestrians after a call for protest, inspired by the recent events in West Asia, circulated on the Internet.

Sunday saw what was likely the biggest security deployment in the Chinese capital in recent years issued in direct response to a protest threat, even though no demonstrators appeared to show up at the listed protest site in Wangfujing, a busy shopping area in central Beijing.

Much of the central shopping area was cordoned off on Sunday morning, as hundreds of police officers, patrolling with attack dogs, and at least 50 police vans blocked the side roads leading to the main street.

Earlier on Sunday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged in his annual chat with Internet users that the government would tackle rising inflation and a growing income gap, which, he said, had “a direct bearing on social justice and stability.”

Mr. Wen said the government would ensure “people live in a comfortable, reassured way.” “I always say we should not only make the cake of social wealth as big as possible, but also distribute the cake in a fair way and let everyone enjoy the fruits of reform and opening up,” he said.

The message from the Chinese government on Sunday underscored its dual-track approach towards instability: while it would continue bringing rapid economic development, it would also have little tolerance for public dissent, and would quickly respond to any calls for protest.

Thousands of police personnel were deployed in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and other cities on Sunday, after an obscure United States-based Chinese-language website, called Boxun, issued its second call for protest in recent weeks.

An earlier attempt by the pro-democracy website, which is inaccessible in China, to organise protests against inflation, corruption and one-party rule had fizzled out. Only a handful of protesters appeared to gather in Shanghai and no gatherings took place in the 12 other cities. Last week, it again called on people in 23 cities to come out at 2 pm every Sunday afternoon and “take a stroll.”

The government has appeared to take the protest threat seriously. More than a dozen lawyers and activists in Beijing have been detained in recent days, while the government has expanded restrictions on the Internet, including blocking online searches for phrases such as “Jasmine.”

On Sunday morning, a McDonald’s outlet in Wangfujing, which was the listed protest site in Beijing, was flooded with plainclothes security officials, identifiable by their earpieces. Groups of young street-sweepers, clad in seemingly brand new orange uniforms, manned the café’s entrance, and descended on any passersby who loitered in front of it. Earlier on in the week, barricades were set up in front of the café, with a sign saying construction work was in progress.

Shortly before 2 pm, a fleet of street-cleaning vehicles began patrolling up and down the shopping street, spraying water and keeping pedestrians off the street. Police officers began clearing the street, which is usually packed with shoppers and tourists.

It was unclear how many had shown up for the protest “stroll”, although the crowd did not appear any bigger than usually seen on Sundays. Among the crowd was one college student who said he had heard about the protest, and showed up out of curiosity. “I did not expect many people to come here, but I wanted to see what would happen,” he said, declining to give his name. “Only a few students have heard about this. But I think an Egypt cannot happen in China. For most people, things are getting better here.”

But few appeared to have any idea about the scheduled protest. “I have never seen so many police here,” one shopkeeper said. “We were told that important officials were having a meeting.”

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