02/21/2011, 00.00
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Police hits the streets to stop non-existent protests

Numerous calls for Mideast-styled protests in China appear online. Although they give no time to gather, police moves in to patrol streets. About 100 dissidents are also arrested. Mainland authorities fear the internet because millions of Chinese internet users can now get around censorship through private networks.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Mainland authorities have rounded up dozens of activists and micro bloggers on Saturday and Sunday after calls appeared online, urging people in more than a dozen Chinese cities to take part today in demonstrations modelled after pro-democracy protests sweeping Arab countries. Beijing is especially concerned that Chinese net users might be able to bypass government censorship.

Calls were posted online, urging people to take to the streets in 13 Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to protest like in the Arab world. The calls were vague and did not provide any guidelines or timetables, but police were deployed quickly and massively in the capital as well as Harbin, Chengdu and Guangzhou.

Yesterday, in Beijing and Shanghai (pictured), many people took to the streets, some making very general demands for food to eat. Acting rapidly, police dispersed crowds made up mostly of people curious about what was going on. Anyone who protested was taken away.

According to the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, police detained about a hundred dissidents, including Tang Jitian, Teng Biao, Xu Zhiyong, Pu Zhiqiang and Jiang Tianyong, in the past two days in Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Guizhou, Hunan and elsewhere. Nothing is known about their whereabouts.

Zhou Yongkang, a leading Chinese Communist Party official responsible for maintaining law and order, urged senior officials to improve "social management" and "detect conflicts and problems early on”.

However, many observers agree that no protest movement was actually launched. Still, police acted immediately as if something was actually happening. This shows how much the authorities fear popular unrest, but also how, despite tight censorship, internet controls are weak.

For years, China has been able to block undesirable websites as well as social media like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook that it does not directly control, fearful that they might spread undesirable information or even be used to organise protests, like in Egypt.

However, Chinese web users have found a way to go around the Great Firewall of China using virtual private network (VPNs) to reach blocked websites. For instance, Facebook, which has been blocked in China since 2009, has seen the number of users double in January to 700,000.

VPNs allow anonymous online navigation by using “proxy servers” that do not show data. This means that censoring programmes can only tell their masters that someone has accessed a VPN but not what sites he or she has visited. Thus, censorship is defeated both upstream (with the authorities unable to find out who the user is) and downstream (blocking websites and contents).

Fang Binxing, who created the Great Firewall, in an interview recently acknowledged that through VPNs it is possible to go around censorship and connect with sites blocked in China.

David Gorodyansky, chief executive officer at AnchorFree Inc., said that his company saw 1.5 million people using its free VPN service in China in January, a 25 per cent increase from the previous month, especially for people getting onto Facebook and other social media sites. Nonetheless, he did concede that the system’s speed was a problem.

In China, some 457 million people use the internet, a number that has put fear in the authorities.

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