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China Adds New Limits on Foreigners

March 4, 2011
 

Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

A police officer, left, filmed a foreign journalist as street cleaners swept water to keep passersby moving and a plain clothes officer, right, watched pedestrians on Sunday along Wangfujing Street in Beijing, where a protest had been called.

By SHARON LaFRANIERE

BEIJING — Apparently unnerved by an anonymous Internet campaign urging Chinese citizens to emulate protests that have rocked the Middle East, the 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 marked as protest sites in Internet postings. Journalists were bluntly warned that they faced the loss of their visas and possible arrest if they did not abide by newly declared limitations 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 locale 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 postings had urged people to gather every Sunday to show their displeasure with the Chinese government.

Western diplomats in China said other events that were planned by or with foreigners 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 ground rules of condition of anonymity.

Separately, Beijing officials announced Wednesday that they intended to monitor the movements of millions of residents via 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, which would make use of global positioning technology, aims to monitor all Beijing residents who use mobile phones — some 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, said Nicholas Bequelin, an analyst in Hong Kong with Human Rights Watch.

Criminal charges were not a hallmark of the last major crackdown on activists, which occurred 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 implementing lessons they 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-Press 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.

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