BEIJING — Police and security officials displayed a massive show of force here and in other Chinese cities Sunday, trying to snuff out any hint of protests modeled on the uprisings in the Middle East. In Shanghai, several hundred people trying to gather were dispersed with a water truck.
Premier Wen Jiabao, meanwhile, used a morning Internet chat to promise to purge senior officials who are corrupt and to rein in inflation and rising home prices, directly addressing some of the most common grievances of ordinary Chinese.
Since the January uprising in Tunisia spurred similar antigovernment protests across the Middle East and North Africa, threatening long-entrenched authoritarian regimes, China's Communist rulers have reacted nervously, with both defensive and aggressive tactics.
Officials have used state-run media outlets to dismiss any comparisons with China while at the same time stepping up public comments on the need to address "social conflict" and to tackle problems such as the growing income disparity between the rich and poor. They have also detained a number of activists and human rights lawyers, blocked Internet search terms considered sensitive, such as "Egypt," "Tunisia" and even U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr.'s Chinese name. And they have issued warnings to foreign journalists to be mindful of reporting restrictions.
A previously unknown group has used an overseas-based Chinese language Web site to call for a series of peaceful, silent protests, named "jasmine rallies" after the Tunisian uprising, on consecutive Sunday afternoons in cities across China. The rallies were called for heavily trafficked commercial areas, public squares and parks, ostensibly so silent protesters could blend in with ordinary passers-by to avoid arrest.
Police on Sunday, however, were out in huge numbers in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities at the sites where the rallies were supposed to take place. At the Wangfujing area of Beijing, a bustling commercial street with a McDonald's and a Gap store and close to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, blue-uniformed police officers and security volunteers with red armbands lined the streets. Other policemen patrolled with German shepherd dogs, and a water truck normally used for street cleaning traversed back and forth.
Police in Beijing stopped some foreigners and asked for identification, turning away journalists from entering the area. At 2:30 p.m., about a half-hour after the scheduled start of the silent protest walk, officers blocked the entrance to Wangfujing Street with police tape. The unusually heavy police presence seemed to attract curious onlookers who snapped pictures with cell phones.
At the Wangfujing protest site, a foreign journalist shooting video for a news agency was reportedly punched and kicked in the face by plainclothes Chinese security officers who confiscated his camera. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China reported that more than a dozen other journalists were roughed up at the site.
At the Peace Cinema in Shanghai, opposite the People's Square near the city's main municipal building, a few hundred people tried to gather. Policemen used loud whistles and loudspeakers to keep the crowd moving, and police converged whenever a group of more than a dozen appeared to be forming. A street-cleaning vehicle spraying bursts of water also kept crowds at bay.
A 71-year-old man, who asked that only his family name, Cao, be used, said: "I came here today to see how people protest against the government, which is corrupt and rules in an authoritarian way. Democracy is the trend in the world. No country in the world can be an exception to the process."