Universities Targeted in 'Jasmine' Crackdown

Police have stepped up surveillance of China’s top universities in northwestern Beijing after three weeks of online calls for protests against the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

The increase in security marks the first time authorities clamping down on the weekly “Jasmine” rallies modeled on popular uprisings in the Middle East have turned their attention to the country’s institutions of higher learning.

Haidian district is home to China’s most well-respected universities, including Peking University and Tsinghua University. Students from both schools took part in organizing the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square that was ultimately crushed by the ruling government.

Tension has also gripped Zhongguancun, a hub of high-tech firms and key scientific research institutions within Haidian.

A university student, who asked to remain anonymous, said Monday she had planned attend a rally in Zhongguancun after organizers urged online sympathizers to “stroll” together at 2 p.m., but felt threatened by the increased security presence.

“I had planned to go to Zhongguancun on Sunday but found the atmosphere there very tense,” she said.

“The underground traffic around Zhongguancun was suspended and some colleges were said to be closed.”

The student then travelled to Xidan, a commercial center in downtown Beijing which had also been designated as a Jasmine rally site by the organizers, only to find an even heavier police presence.

“Police were guarding the exits at the Xidan subway station and it looked quite scary,” she said.

“We took a stroll around the KFC [a popular American fast food restaurant] there and saw hundreds of police officers intermingling with citizen volunteers. Xidan was much more crowded than usual yesterday.”

The student said that in order to avoid being detected, her group decided to break up and observe the situation.

“We dispersed into small groups with just two of us walking together, carrying no cameras or other photographic equipment.”

Residents of Xidan also reported police helicopters hovering overhead on Sunday to monitor the situation on the ground.

City response

Meanwhile, the Beijing municipal government has suggested that Jasmine-style rallies and other protests aimed at the Chinese government would fall flat because the majority of China’s citizens desire peace and stability and favor the leadership’s policies.

"Cool-headed people know that these [organizers] have chosen the wrong place, and their ideas and plans are wrong," city government spokeswoman Wang Hui said Sunday. "In Beijing we have had and will have no such incidents."

"Over the past 30 years or more China's success and economic progress has been broadly recognized. The Communist Party's leadership and government's policies are in line with the people's will and their hearts.”

Cyber-activists, whose true identities have never been revealed, have been encouraging Chinese citizens via microblogging sites to rally or “stroll” every Sunday on the downtown streets of Beijing and other major metropolises around the country.

They have called on participants to openly voice their grievances caused by what they feel is ineffective Communist Party rule.

Last Sunday marked the third consecutive “action day,” prompting a harsh reaction from authorities who blocked any attempts to organize and protest. Dissidents were rounded up around the country and foreign journalists reported being harassed and beaten by police when trying to cover the rallies.

Sensitive sessions

The protests come at a sensitive time for Beijing, which is hosting the annual sessions of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

The two lawmaking sessions opened on Saturday amid high security measures meant to dissuade petitioners from publicly lobbying the country’s political elite.

“They are scared, worrying about revolts in North Africa and the Middle East spreading to China,” said A Ding, a member of the media in Beijing.

“This is why the authorities published editorials in the Beijing Daily and in Shanghai’s Liberation Daily recently, charging cyber-activists with harboring evil will meant to disturb social order in China,” he said.

Authorities have also targeted political dissidents and rights activists who use the Internet to prompt debate, blocking online discussions of the Jasmine rallies.

On Saturday, hackers attacked U.S.-based blog site provider Wordpress.com, which provided technical support for Boxun.com and other Chinese language sites hosting forums on the Jasmine protests. The administrator of Wordpress.com said Sunday that the majority of hacking traffic originated in China.

Beijing-based cyber technician Mo Nan blasted Chinese authorities for the hacking attacks.

“Their logic is simple: whoever provides a platform for free speech is automatically a menace to them.”

Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated by Ping Chen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.