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China Adds New Limits on Foreigners

March 3, 2011

The New York Times, 3 March 2011: Apparently unnerved by an anonymous Internet campaign urging Chinese citizens to emulate the protests that have rocked the Middle East, Chinese authorities this week have begun a forceful and carefully targeted clampdown on activities by foreigners that the government deems threatening to political stability.

Public security officials have summoned dozens of foreign journalists in Beijing and Shanghai to be dressed down on videotape, warning them that they had broken reporting regulations by visiting locations that had been selected as protest sites in Internet postings. Journalists were bluntly warned that they faced the loss of their visas and expulsion if they did not abide by new limits on their ability to interview and photograph Chinese citizens, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said in a statement.

In Shanghai, the authorities objected to the location of an annual St. Patrick’s Day parade set for March 12 that had been expected to draw more than 2,000 people, prompting Irish organizations to abruptly cancel the event on Monday. The parade was to have taken place on a major street close to a cinema where the Internet postings had urged people to gather every Sunday to show their displeasure with the Chinese government.

Western diplomats in China said other events that had been planned by foreigners, or with their help, had also been abruptly canceled. “We’ve noticed that a somewhat larger number of our cultural and educational programs around China are being postponed or canceled, but we haven’t been notified by Chinese authorities of any specific reason,” said one diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Separately, Beijing officials announced Wednesday that they intended to monitor the movements of millions of residents by means of information transmitted by their cellphones. One official was quoted on a government Web site as saying that the new program would provide “real-time information about a user’s activity.”

The project aims to monitor all Beijing residents who use cellphones — about 20 million people — to detect unusually large gatherings. One official said the primary use would be to detect and ease traffic and subway congestion. But Chinese media reports said government officials could use the data to detect and prevent protests.

The government’s actions this week are the latest in a long and steady process of restricting speech and assembly freedoms that appears to have gained speed after antigovernment protests flared in Tibet in March 2008 and in the western region of Xinjiang in 2009.

The limitations also follow two weeks of unusually harsh treatment of political activists, possibly also inspired by fear that the upheaval in the Middle East could spread to China.

Four prominent lawyers involved in rights issues have disappeared after being seized by the police, at least 100 activists have been detained and an unusually large number of activists have been charged with crimes, including some that could draw life sentences with a conviction, said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher in Hong Kong with Human Rights Watch.

Criminal charges were not a hallmark of the last major crackdown on activists, in December, when the imprisoned democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Bequelin said.

“That is an escalation,” he said. “You have one case or a couple of cases, well, that happens. But now, we have quite a few.”

Victor Shih, a China specialist and political science professor at Northwestern University, said Chinese authorities were systematically carrying out lessons they had learned from the collapse of authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe.

“Once there’s a sizable demonstration, it becomes costlier to control, so why let it happen in the first place?” he said in an interview in Beijing on Thursday. “Because they have a lot of resources, they are able to pour a lot of money into making sure that, at least in Beijing, nothing happens.”

No protests of any note have taken place in China since calls for Middle East-style demonstrations were first published on an American Web site two months ago. But last Friday, public security officials, without mentioning the possibility of weekend protests, summoned some foreign correspondents in Beijing, reminding them to abide by unspecified reporting rules.

Some who tried Sunday to look into vague, Internet-based calls for protests paid a price. In Beijing, plainclothes officers dragged reporters and photographers into alleys or shops and erased images from their cameras. Three journalists were injured, including a Bloomberg News videographer who was kicked and beaten, according to the correspondents’ association.

This week, public security officials warned reporters from The New York Times, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and numerous other foreign news organizations that they had violated regulations by appearing at possible protest sites and that further infractions would not be tolerated.

At Thursday’s regular news conference at the Foreign Ministry, Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman, suggested that some reporters were trying to stir up unrest, not report on it. “Law-abiding people will be protected by the law,” she said. “But people who are trying to create trouble in China, I can tell them that they have made the wrong plans.”

“Some people are eager to join the fray,” she continued. “For people with that kind of motive, no law can protect them.”

She insisted that a decree signed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in October 2008, allowing foreign journalists to conduct interviews and travel within China without first obtaining government permission, remained in force. “There is no change,” she insisted. “There is no step back.”

But Ms. Jiang also made it clear that journalists should check first with the authorities before visiting places where many people gather, lest they disrupt order and traffic. The need to get government permission depends “on the local law-and-order situation in that particular spot and the judgment of police,” she said.

New regulations posted on a Beijing government Web site strictly forbid journalists to report at Wangfujing pedestrian mall, where anonymous organizers had called for Sunday gatherings outside a McDonald’s restaurant.

The regulations also bar beggars, fortune tellers, gamblers and “running dogs and other animals” from frequenting the area. Journalists in Shanghai have been warned against reporting from an area near the Peace Cinema, adjacent to People’s Square, where the Internet postings have urged protestors to gather.

Conor O’Riordan, the Irish consul general in Shanghai, said concerns about the St. Patrick’s Day parade percolated for about a month and came to a boil on Monday. He said Chinese officials were willing to allow it to proceed if organizers found a “more modest” route. The chosen street, Nanjing Donglu, is part of the area journalists have been warned away from.

Unable to change locations so quickly, organizers on Monday canceled the event, Mr. O’Riordan said. Instead, a volunteer-run organization will hold an invitation-only, indoor celebration.

 

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