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China Cracks Down On Reporters, Potential Protesters

Chinese paramilitary police check  journalists' identity cards in Tiananmen Square before the opening  session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, China on  Thursday.
Andy Wong
Chinese paramilitary police check journalists' identity cards in Tiananmen Square before the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, China on Thursday.

In China, the authorities are stepping up pressure on foreign journalists, warning of expulsion if reporting rules are broken.

It's part of a wider crackdown, following anonymous online calls for weekend protests to kick-start a Chinese "jasmine revolution." Although the protests never really materialized, the preemptive crackdown certainly has.

Strolling has rarely been so politically charged. In certain Chinese cities, on certain streets, at a specific time — Sundays at 2 p.m. — it could become an act of defiance. Or those nonchalant strollers could simply be hapless passersby going about their shopping. That ambiguity has been at the heart of the anonymous online calls for change in China that have rattled Beijing's nerves.

The authorities have set up a looming confrontation with foreign journalists this weekend, warning them to stay away from Wangfujing, the busy shopping street designated as the site for protest strolls. Some have been warned that a failure to comply could cost them their journalist visas.

At a tense foreign ministry briefing Thursday, spokeswoman Jiang Yu argued that journalists could no longer be treated as reporters, if they "try to defy the law and create news."

"The nature of this issue is that some people are eager for the fray and try to create trouble in China," Jiang Yu said. "For people with that kind of motive, no law can protect them."

Last Sunday, police — both uniformed and plainclothes — were out in force, moving people along on the pedestrian street of Wangfujing at 2 p.m. Cleaning vehicles hosed the street down continuously, preventing people from congregating.

In any case, there was no sign of any protesters, and no way of differentiating protest strollers from ordinary pedestrians. Despite that, many reporters were blocked from entering, including the BBC's Damian Grammaticas,

"All of a sudden, shortly before 2, a group of plainclothes security men with earpieces grabbed my cameraman, threw him into a police van," he said. "They turned round, grabbed me, slammed me against the door of the police van, slammed me on the floor, threw me in and slammed the door on my leg several times."

By the end of the day, journalists from 16 news organizations were harassed or detained. One American cameraman was badly beaten. Since then, new regulations have appeared, putting particular places off-limits to reporters without permission.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China says it's so far not aware of a single news organization being granted permission to report from Wangfujing this Sunday. This appears to be a rollback of media freedoms granted before the Olympics. Many journalists have been warned that their work visas are at risk if they don't comply.

At least two TV crews have run into interference from police or plainclothes personnel, working on completely unrelated stories.

The crackdown coincides with the opening of the annual parliamentary sessions, which is traditionally a tense time in the Chinese capital. Human rights groups say at least a hundred Chinese activists have had their movements restricted in the past few weeks. Seven people are facing criminal charges such as incitement of subversion; four others have been detained.

According to Wang Songlian, from Chinese Human Rights Defenders, the timing could be opportunistic.

"The detentions in other periods of time would have created much more attention than now, because all the international attention is moving to the Middle East. So the government feels like it has a free hand to punish these very active people," Wang said.

The severity of the response has baffled many observers.

"It seems a public relations disaster that you could have seen coming," says Jeff Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine. "There has been a kind of schizophrenia in the way the government acts. Half the time it seems to be acting like a self-confident rising power which can be more tolerant of varieties of opinion and personal freedoms. Then, occasionally, there is a slide back into a very insecure overreaction."

The ripples are spreading ever wider: A St. Patrick's Day parade in Shanghai has been canceled; new rules are making it harder to hold international conferences in China; and the list of banned words grows ever greater.

Even a video of a folksong sung by China's President Hu Jintao with a group of students in Kenya has been deleted from the Chinese Internet because of the song's name — "Jasmine Flower." It, too, has become collateral damage in China's fight against its phantom jasmine revolution.

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Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.