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Police officers break up a protest in front of the Peace Cinema in Shanghai on Feb. 20, 2011. Protesters gathered in central Beijing and Shanghai on Sunday after calls spread online across China urging pro-democracy gatherings inspired by protest rallies across the Middle East. (CARLOS BARRIA/Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Police officers break up a protest in front of the Peace Cinema in Shanghai on Feb. 20, 2011. Protesters gathered in central Beijing and Shanghai on Sunday after calls spread online across China urging pro-democracy gatherings inspired by protest rallies across the Middle East. (CARLOS BARRIA/Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Could Mideast revolutions spread to China? Add to ...

China's rulers also have a much better grasp of the potential dangers posed by "new media" - particularly Twitter-style microblogging and social-networking sites - than did the creaky regimes of the Middle East. The call for a protest on Wangfujing Street last weekend used the hashtag #cn220 on Twitter, a website blocked inside China, but still accessible to those computer-savvy enough to scale what is known as the Great Firewall. The heavy police presence (compared with the paltry number of demonstrators) in front of the McDonald's - and the speed with which they dispersed the small "Jasmine" gathering - revealed that Chinese security was paying at least as much attention to social media as the pro-democracy movement was.

"These social-networking sites have become a tool of political subversion used by Western nations, including the United States," read a report on new media that was released last year by the state-run China Academy of Social Sciences. Another blocked website, Facebook, was singled out for having played a role in the deadly riots that hit the largely Muslim region of Xinjiang in 2009. "Faced with the popularity of social networking sites … it is imperative to exert control."

Rather than shutting down the Internet altogether, as first Mr. Mubarak and now Moammar Gadhafi resorted to, only to provoke more popular anger, China's leaders have taken a more sophisticated approach in dealing with its online population of 450 million.

Few here bemoan the loss of Facebook and Twitter because Chinese rivals - ones willing to work with the government - have been nurtured in their place. When the initial call to protest was issued last Saturday, Chinese bloggers reported that posts with the words "jasmine" or "tomorrow" were blocked on Renren.com and Sina.com, China's most popular social-networking sites. On Sunday, when protesters were supposed to head to the McDonald's in central Beijing, the word "today" was added to the list of sensitive terms.

On Friday, the LinkedIn professional networking site appeared to join the list of blocked Web pages after at least one user posted about the possibility of China having a revolution akin to Egypt's. Searches for the name "Jon Huntsman," the U.S. ambassador here, were also blocked after he caused a commotion by briefly appearing at last Sunday's demonstrations.

Signs of strength or weakness?

While these extreme measures could be interpreted as signs of weakness and insecurity on the part of the Communist Party, they were also a show of strength, a police state still at the top of its game. By Friday - 48 hours before the second "Jasmine protests" - the street in front of the McDonald's on the Wangfujing pedestrian mall had been conveniently turned into a construction site.

"Their push for a 'revolution' will falter, as the public is opposed to it. That authorities are taking a strong line against these people is supported both by law and public opinion," read an editorial this week in the Global Times.

The crackdown was expanded to include foreign journalists, several of whom (including The Globe and Mail) were called and warned to "respect the laws of China" during the coming days.

One theory about the initial "Jasmine" gathering in Beijing last weekend is that it wasn't a real effort at revolution, but a test run to see how the security apparatus would respond to a small-scale action modelled on the Middle East. Sunday's protests in 23 cities around the country, if they happen, will be a bigger test.

Wang Dan, one of the key leaders of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, has been one of the few to publicly attach his name to the Jasmine protests, promoting them from exile via his Facebook page. In an e-mail interview, he said it was impossible to predict if and when Chinese would decide to take to the streets against their government but "if the inflation situation gets worse, there must be social disorder." Food prices in China rose 10.3 per cent in January, and that was before the unrest in the Middle East pushed oil past $110 a barrel.

While the cost of a bowl of noodles is the subject of much grumbling among ordinary Chinese, few observers expect the crowds Sunday to be much bigger than the 200 or so who briefly gathered in the centre of Beijing last weekend.

It's hard not to admire the bravery of anyone who shows up. But perhaps the lesson the organizers should have taken away from last week's failed effort is that the pillars of the support for the regime in China are far stronger than they were in Egypt, Tunisia, Ukraine or Serbia.

The rabbits might not like their government much, but they aren't ready to rise up just yet. And the tigers are constantly making preparations for the day they do.

Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's correspondent based in China.

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