Following a response to calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China, police have launched a massive security clampdown on activists in what some critics are calling the most severe in recent years, report PEN American Center, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Anonymous appeals for "Jasmine"-themed protests in Chinese cities, based on media characterisations of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, began circulating online on overseas, dissident-run websites on 19 February. The authors of the appeals call for an an independent judiciary and an end to government corruption.
Journalists who have tried to cover the handful of protests that have sprung up have been blocked or harassed. According to the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), more than 100 dissident writers, lawyers and activists have been harassed, summoned, kidnapped or put under house arrest.
Most worrying, at least five individuals have been detained on criminal charges of endangering state security, namely suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power" or "subversion of state power". In recent years these charges have resulted in jail sentences of up to a decade or longer.
Among those detained on state security charges is Ran Yunfei, a Sichuan-based political writer and blogger. He was taken by police on 19 February and formally detained on suspicion of "subversion of state power", reports ICPC. He blogs at http://www.bullogger.com/blogs/ranyunfei/ and his Twitter account, @ranyunfei, has more than 44,000 followers.
In another case, Liang Haiyi was detained on 21 February for "posting information from foreign websites regarding 'Jasmine Revolution' actions on domestic websites," such as QQ, the popular Chinese social networking site.
Hua Chunhui, an insurance manager who had sent details of the "Jasmine Revolution" using his Twitter account, @wxhch64, was also detained on 21 February on suspicion of inciting subversion of state power, reports ICPC.
Many fear that criminal detention may be the fate of those currently in police custody. Among those at risk is high-profile lawyer Teng Biao who has been held incommunicado since 19 February, when police raided his home, says PEN American Center.
Foreign journalists have not been impervious to the crackdown. Police briefly detained more than a dozen of them and assaulted at least two at the site of a planned anti-government protest in a Beijing shopping district on 27 February, report CPJ, IFJ and RSF. All were released after a few hours.
CPJ says the attack is "a return to the restrictions international reporters faced before they were eased in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics." Apparently the reporters were warned they needed to cooperate with police, as well as get special permission in person from the district office at least three days in advance to conduct interviews on Wangfujing Street, the Xidan shopping district and the area near Tiananmen Square.
Bloomberg News said one of its correspondents was kicked and punched by at least five men in plainclothes - apparently security personnel - and required medical treatment.
Watch an AP video of police squelching the protests here:
Meanwhile, protest-related online messaging services and articles have been blacked out, say the members. The English service of state-controlled Xinhua News Agency reported on 20 February protests but the stories later disappeared from its website. Xinhua's Chinese service did not report on the story at all, and censors have been blocking the words "jasmine" and "Wangfujing" from the Internet, says IFJ. ICPC's webmaster was detained and then forced to "travel", and ICPC's website has been shut down in an apparent cyber-attack, reports PEN American Center.
"We haven't received any orders from the Central Propaganda Department regarding the 'Jasmine Revolution' so far but no relevant reports were published in Chinese media. It's because anyone who publishes will be fired right away," a journalist told IFJ.
According to CPJ, Internet censorship traditionally tightens before annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, both of which are happening in March.
"While the attention of the world is fixed upon the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the Chinese government may believe it has been presented a golden opportunity to strike hard at Chinese pro-democracy and human rights activists. The international community should not let this go on," pleaded Hong-Kong based group China Human Rights Defenders.