Recent online calls for mass protests have sent the Chinese government on the defensive, and while experts say the online activity probably won't lead to outright revolution, it could force China's leadership to be more responsive to social problems ailing the country.
Starting last month, an anonymous activist group began calling on the Chinese people to stage a "Jasmine Revolution", a reference to the anti-government protests that have erupted in the Middle East.
China had already blocked the site from which the calls to protest came. But the government has taken the extra step of preventing any mention of related terms. Searches for the word "Jasmine" have been blocked on microblog services, while users of social networking sites have been barred from posting any information related to the protest calls.
The Chinese government remains averse to protests or movements of any kind that might threaten the leadership. The Falun Gong spiritual movement, for example, was banned in China when it grew too big, and the government has maintained a watch on Tiananmen Square in Beijing ever since the protests there in 1989, when the Chinese government called in the military to squash a student-led democracy movement.
China's attempts to prevent unrest also extend to the mass communication abilities of the Internet, with any talk of government overthrow online immediately silenced. Chinese authorities even shut down the Internet in the western region of Xinjiang, when ethnic rioting erupted there in 2009.
Although the recent protest calls have yet to spark demonstrations in China, the online activity has been powerful enough to force the Chinese government to take action, said David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project. "It's clearly shown the capacity of the Internet," Bandurski said. "It has the capacity to really pressure the leadership."
Since the protest calls were made, China has deployed large police forces across cities in China, harassed foreign journalists and arrested human rights activists. The moves show that the Chinese government is clearly "cautious" about the Internet, Bandurski said.
The activists originally posted their protest calls on the Chinese political blog boxun.com. After it went offline, they set up a blog at blogspot.com where they wrote: "We learned that Chinese government employs hundreds of thousands of people to make overflow attacks on Boxun, VOA, Twitter and other websites, in order to block information about this movement."
Bandurski described the government's actions as "a kind of full-on assault," adding that: "The Chinese leadership is responding to this in a kind of draconian way with very clever systems of technical controls to stop the threat of people gathering."
The activists behind the protest calls are urging the Chinese people to bring forth democracy in the country and have called for new rallies this Sunday, March 6.
Activists contacted for this story declined to answer questions. "At this point, none of us can reveal the personal identities nor the locations or number of people working on this," one of the organisers said.
'Not serious calls'
The recent online protest calls, however, are not as serious as previous attempts at reform, said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. The online activity "seems to me to have been an opportunistic move by people mostly based outside of China," he said. "What makes the Chinese authorities nervous is not the call itself, but the realisation with the Middle East revolts that the Internet can actually play a major role in triggering protests."
China has the world's largest Internet population with 457 million Internet users. The country is notorious for taking down or blocking politically sensitive content on the web. US sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all inaccessible, although users can pay for online services that allow them to get past Chinese Internet censors.
The Chinese government also exercises strict control over news. In the case of the anti-government protests in Egypt, it restricted information related to the event, with coverage limited to photos and short articles.
While the Chinese government does not tolerate open calls for revolution, "Chinese cyberspace is full of views critical of officials and government policies," said Wenran Jiang, a professor at the University of Alberta. "The government, while controlling the Internet, also gets feedback from the masses and responds to those complaints in order to defuse crises."
This happened on Sunday when China's Premier Wen Jiabao answered questions from Internet users during a two-hour webcast. Wen said that the government would tackle the challenges of inflation, rising housing prices and corruption.
Wen has spoken in similar webcasts before. But the timing of the appearance suggests that the government wanted to address the current tensions, experts said.
"These are as close as you get to town hall meetings in the US," said Jiang. "In that sense, the growth of the Internet in China is a positive story, and it has played a role in putting the government on alert and forced it to be more responsive."
The recent protest calls for a Jasmine revolution, however, just add to the mounting pressures facing the Chinese government, experts say.
"I would not be surprised that those calls and similar Internet-based messages could lead to tangible policy changes, even meaningful reforms in China," said Fei-Ling Wang, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
But some are questioning how long China can maintain strict control over the Internet without allowing for free speech. Last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said China and other countries with prevalent Internet censorship would face long term costs like social unrest. Mention of the speech was immediately blocked on microblogs searches in China.
China is making a "gamble" by believing it can continue with its Internet censorship policies, said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher also with Human Rights Watch.
"So far it's working for the Chinese government," he said. "It's a cat-and-mouse game of people trying to push the envelope through the Internet and into the public sphere."