BEIJING (Reuters) - China will not succumb to the kind of unrest rocking authoritarian governments across the Middle East, a senior official said, though a rash of detentions and censorship suggest Beijing remains nervous.
The comments by Zhao Qizheng, former head of the government’s information office, were Beijing’s most senior public response so far to online messages urging “Jasmine Revolution” protests.
So far, protests in China have been small and overwhelmed by swarms of police.
“There won’t be any Jasmine Revolution in China,” Zhao said, according to a report Thursday in the Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong-based newspaper under mainland Chinese control.
Protesters in Tunisia forced out long-time President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January in what supporters called a “Jasmine Revolution.” It was swiftly followed by the fall of long-serving Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with anti-government protests spreading to other countries in the region.
“The idea that a Jasmine Revolution could happen in China is extremely preposterous and unrealistic,” Zhao told a group of reporters Wednesday, said the paper.
Relatively few people see the online calls for protests, which have circulated mostly on overseas websites that are blocked by the mainland government.
Authorities have also hindered the spread of information in China and detained dissidents. The Chinese word for “jasmine” has been blocked in searches of popular Chinese websites.
Human Rights in China, an advocacy group based in New York, listed 29 rights lawyers and dissidents detained, confined, searched or questioned by police or government agents since February 16, although it is unclear how many were targeted because of the Chinese Communist Party’s fears of the calls for gatherings.
Two people — a man in southwest China and a woman in the northeast — have been detained on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” according to the man’s wife and the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.
Zhao now heads the foreign affairs committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a body that advises the government but has no legislative powers.
Even fierce critics of the ruling Communist Party have said that for now it faces scant risk of the kinds of uprisings that have swept through the Middle East.
China’s rapid economic growth has diluted discontent about corruption and inequality. It has also enabled sharply higher funding for domestic security, arming police with sophisticated surveillance equipment and intimidating hardware.
But Beijing gets jittery about any signs of organised opposition to the Party, and officials are on edge ahead of the annual meeting of the national parliament in early March.
Some detained activists have been later released. In other cases, their families have no idea of their whereabouts.
“We haven’t had any word about where he is,” said Qiu Danrong, whose husband, Liu Anjun, was bundled into a van by men in plain clothes on the weekend. Liu runs a group that helps petitioners who come to Beijing to press complaints.
“It’s impossible to find out anything, so we just have to wait and wait for any news or until he’s let out,” said Qiu.
For many activists, the restrictions are nothing new.
Li Heping, a lawyer in Beijing who has defended dissidents, told Reuters that Thursday morning he and another rights lawyer were stopped from flying to Japan to attend a meeting.
Li said this was the fifth time since 2008 that he was blocked by border officers from going abroad.
“The atmosphere is relatively tense now, because of the events in north Africa,” said Li. “They’re afraid of all these calls for human rights and freedom spreading in China.”
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Jonathan Thatcher