Jittery Chinese authorities wary of any domestic dissent staged a show of force Sunday to squelch a mysterious online call for a "Jasmine Revolution," with only a handful of people joining protests apparently modeled on the pro-democracy demonstrations sweeping the Middle East.
Authorities detained activists, increased the number of police on the streets, disconnected some cell phone text messaging services and censored Internet postings about the call to stage protests in Beijing, Shanghai and 11 other major cities.
Police took at least three people away in Beijing, one of whom tried to place white jasmine flowers on a planter while hundreds of people milled about the protest gathering spot, outside a McDonald's on the capital's busiest shopping street. In Shanghai, police led away three people near the planned protest spot after they scuffled in an apparent bid to grab the attention of passers-by.
Many activists said they didn't know who was behind the campaign and weren't sure what to make of the call to protest, which first circulated Saturday on the U.S.-based Chinese-language news website Boxun.com.
The unsigned notice called for a "Jasmine Revolution" -- the name given to the Tunisian protest movement -- and urged people "to take responsibility for the future." Participants were urged to shout, "We want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness" -- a slogan that highlights common complaints among Chinese.
The call is likely to fuel anxiety in China's authoritarian government, which is ever alert for domestic discontent and has appeared unnerved by protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria and Libya. It has limited media reports about them, stressing the instability caused by the protests, and restricted Internet searches to keep Chinese uninformed about Middle Easterners' grievances against their autocratic rulers.
Though there are many similarities between the complaints voiced by Middle East citizens and the everyday troubles of Chinese, Beijing's tight grip on the country's media, Internet and other communication forums poses difficulties for anyone trying to organize mass demonstrations.
Extensive Internet filtering and monitoring meant that most Chinese were unlikely to know about the call to protest Sunday. Boxun.com is blocked, as are Twitter and Facebook, which were instrumental in Egypt's protest movement. Tech-savvy Chinese can circumvent controls, but few of the country's Internet users seek out politically subversive content.
Anti-government gatherings in China are routinely stamped out by its pervasive security forces, which are well-funded and well-equipped. A pro-democracy movement in 1989 that directly challenged the Communist government was crushed by the military and hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed.
On Saturday, President Hu Jintao ordered national and provincial officials to "solve prominent problems which might harm the harmony and stability of the society."
One person sitting in the McDonald's after the brief protest in Beijing said he saw Sunday's gathering as a dry run.
"Lots of people in here are Twitter users and came to watch like me," said 42-year-old Hu Di. "Actually this didn't have much organization, but it's a chance to meet each other. It's like preparing for the future."
With foot traffic always heavy at the Wangfujing pedestrian mall, it was difficult to discern who showed up to protest, who came to watch and who was out shopping. Many wondered if there was a celebrity in the area because of the heavy police presence and dozens of foreign reporters and news cameras.
As the crowd swelled and police urged people to move on, 25-year-old Liu Xiaobai placed a white jasmine flower on a planter in front of the McDonald's and took some photos with his cell phone.
"I'm quite scared because they took away my phone. I just put down some white flowers, what's wrong with that?" Liu said afterward. "I'm just a normal citizen and I just want peace."
Security agents tried to take away Liu, but he was swarmed by journalists and eventually was seen walking away with a friend.
Two other people were taken away by police, including a shabbily dressed old man who was cursing and shouting, though it wasn't clear if he was there because of the online call to protest.
In Shanghai, three young men were taken away from outside a Starbucks coffee shop in People's Square by police, who refused to answer reporters' questions about why they were detained. They trio had been shouting complaints about the government and that food prices are too high.
A couple dozen older people were drawn to the commotion and started voicing their own complaints and saying they wanted democracy and the right to vote. One woman jumped up on a roadside cement block to shout, "The government are all hooligans," then ran off, only to return a bit later and shout again at the police and others crowded in the area before once again scampering away.
Security officials were relaxed toward the retirees and the crowd eventually drifted away.
There were no reports of protests in other cities where people were urged to gather, such as Guangzhou, Tianjin, Wuhan and Chengdu.
Ahead of the planned protests, human rights groups estimated that anywhere from several dozen to more than 100 activists in cities across China were detained by police, confined to their homes or were missing. Families and friends reported the detention or harassment of several dissidents, and some activists said they were warned not to participate.
On Sunday, searches for "jasmine" were blocked on China's largest Twitter-like microblog, and status updates with the word on popular Chinese social networking site Renren.com were met with an error message and a warning to refrain from postings with "political, sensitive ... or other inappropriate content."
A text messaging service from China Mobile was unavailable in Beijing on Sunday due to an upgrade, according to a customer service operator for the leading service provider, who did not know how long the suspension would last. In the past, Chinese authorities have suspended text messaging in politically tense areas to prevent organizing.
Boxun.com said its website was attacked Saturday after it posted the call to protest. A temporary site, on which users were reporting heavy police presence in several cities, was up and running Sunday. The site said in a statement it had no way of verifying the origins of the campaign. Typical Story Inserts (as found in CNBC/Components/Data-Market folder):