China subdues protests with whistles and trucks

Large numbers of police – and new weapons such as shrill whistles and street cleaning trucks – squelched overt protests in China for a second Sunday in a row yesterday after more calls for peaceful gatherings modeled on recent democratic movements in the Middle East.

Near Shanghai's People's Square, uniformed police blew whistles nonstop and shouted at people to keep moving, though about 200 people – a combination of onlookers and quiet sympathizers who formed a larger crowd than a week ago – braved the shrill noise. In Beijing, trucks normally used to water the streets drove repeatedly up the busy commercial shopping district spraying water and keeping crowds pressed to the edges.

Foreign journalists met with tighter police controls. In Shanghai, authorities called foreign reporters yesterday warning them to stay away from the protest sites, while police in Beijing followed some reporters and blocked those with cameras from entering the Wangfujing shopping street where protests were held. Police detained several Chinese, at least two in Beijing and four in Shanghai, putting them into vans and driving them away, though it was not clear if they had tried to protest.

While it isn't clear how many people – if any at all – came to protest, the outsized response compared with last week shows how the mysterious calls for protest have left the authoritarian government on edge. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where popular frustrations with economic malaise added fuel to popular protests to oust autocratic leaders, China has a booming economy and rising living standards. Still, the leadership is battling inflation and worries that democratic movements could take root if unchallenged.

"Rapid inflation affects people's livelihoods and may affect social stability," Premier Wen Jiabao said in an online chat yesterday. While he did not mention the Middle East, he later added: "I know the impact that prices can cause a country and am deeply aware of its extreme importance."

Online posts of unknown origin that first circulated on an overseas Chinese news website 10 days ago have called for Chinese to gather peacefully at sites every Sunday in a show of people power meant to promote fairness and democracy. A renewed call this week expanded the target cities to 27, from 13.