By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 11:25 PM
BEIJING - A previously unknown group has called on the Chinese to replicate the popular protests in the Middle East by staging their own peaceful "jasmine rallies" in cities across China every Sunday afternoon, to demand an end to corruption, greater accountability and an independent judiciary.
The appeal comes as China's Communist rulers have displayed signs of being alternately alert and nervous about any replica of the popular unrest that began last month in Tunisia, convulsing much of the Middle East and North Africa and threatening to topple long-standing authoritarian regimes.
The "jasmine rallies" call was in an unsigned open letter posted on a Chinese-language Web site, Boxun.com, a bulletin board for mostly overseas Chinese dissidents and bloggers that is blocked by China's Internet firewall. It was unclear how many Chinese could actually see the appeal or take part.
The letter listed public squares, parks and department stores in 13 Chinese cities where the "strolls" would take place. It said people in cities not listed should go to the central square in their city and do the same, in what the organizers said would be a passive, non-violent form of public protest.
A previous call last Sunday for a similar walk-by protest seemed to fizzle, with a massive police presence in Beijing and several other cities and with foreign journalists far outnumbering the handful of potential demonstrators who showed up. In Beijing, the protest was called for a busy street in front of a McDonald's restaurant, making it almost impossible to tell potential protesters from regular Sunday passersby.
Still, Chinese authorities appear to be watching closely for signs of unrest. Last weekend, President Hu Jintao called an extraordinary urgent meeting at the Central Party School to urge his provincial- and ministerial-level colleagues to be mindful of "social conflict" brewing in Chinese society.
The party official in charge of domestic security, Zhou Yongkang, a member of the powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, told the same high-level weekend gathering to "detect conflicts and problems in time" and "take forward-looking, active and effective measures to improve social management," according to accounts in Xinhua, the official state-run news agency.
The party's propaganda officials have also been working overtime to find ways to explain the unrest embroiling the Middle East while pointing out why China is immune to a similar uprising.
An unsigned commentary this week in the Global Times - a tabloid newspaper owned by the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, People's Daily - said those who wanted to start a "jasmine revolution" in China "are like beggars in the streets - they never fade away, while the rest of the country moves forward."
The commentary, believed to reflect the view of the party, blamed Western media outlets for trying to bring unrest to China, saying "some in the West want China to become 'the next Egypt.' This is simply impossible."
The tough words come after what human rights groups fear is a renewed crackdown on activists and lawyers in China. Last week, three prominent lawyers, Jian Tianyong, Teng Biao and Tang Jitian, were separately taken away by public security agents, and they have not been seen or heard from since.
"There's definitely a crackdown going on," said Nicholas Bequelin, researcher for Human Rights Watch's Asia division based in Hong Kong.
"China never looked favorably on examples of people toppling authoritarian governments; they have an innate dislike for that kind of narrative," Bequelin said. He said he believed the leadership, while clearly nervous, did not feel threatened by the possibility of protests here, because China has a successful economy compared with the Middle Eastern and North African countries currently dealing with popular unrest.
At the same time, he said, the public security apparatus in China probably was using even the remote possibility of unrest as a way to increase its influence inside the ruling circle. "The power of the security forces has grown," he said. "I'm sure they are using these developments to leverage more. The security apparatus has its own agenda."
email@example.com Researchers Liu Liu and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.