Amid fears of unrest, China imposes new restrictions on foreign journalists

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 7, 2011; 6:58 PM

BEIJING - One week after foreign journalists were physically harassed by security officers - and one videographer beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalized - China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, denied that the police took part in beating any reporters and said the government follows "the rule of law."

"At the same time, we hope that the foreign journalists will abide by the Chinese laws and regulations," Yang said Monday at a news conference on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the country's largely rubber-stamp parliament. "There is no such issue as Chinese police officers beating foreign journalists."

The minister's denial, which was contradicted by witness and video accounts, came as government announced new restrictions on foreign journalists working here - essentially repealing the loosened reporting policy put in place during the 2008 Beijing Olympics to showcase a more modern, less authoritarian China to the world.

Under the new rules, announced over the weekend, foreign journalists must have government permission to interview anyone in a public area in China. Under the 2008 rules, reporters could interview any Chinese citizen who gave their consent.

The communist government's tightening control over the foreign media comes as the country grapples with the fallout from popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. China's leadership fears that the unrest could spread here. The government is intensely concerned about "stability maintenance" - the leadership's catchall phrase for tamping down even the hint of dissent - and plans to spend $95 billion this year on "public security," meaning the containment of internal threats. That is more than the amount publicly allotted to the military.

The concern over stability has heightened after mysterious online calls for Middle East-style peaceful rallies on consecutive Sundays in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. Although protests have been barely visible, China's security forces have taken no chances, mounting a security clampdown in the commercial areas designated as rally sites.

The Communist Party's media outlets have begun accusing outsiders, and particularly the foreign media, of trying to foment Middle East-style unrest in China. In a Monday editorial, the Global Times - which is owned by the Communist Party's main newspaper, People's Daily, and reflects the party view - endorsed the security forces' tactic of squashing any protest plans.

"Once the illegal gatherings get out of control, the potential unrest would undermine the eventual social benefits," the editorial said. "Unrest is still imprinted deeply into Chinese society. Revolution catalyzed a new China, but society also paid heavy costs for the revolution."

China's sprawling security apparatus also appears to have launched a campaign to rein in foreign journalists, who for two years have been allowed more space to travel and report freely, outside of sensitive areas such as Tibet and the restive Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang.

Since the weekend, according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, local police either visited in person or telephoned 14 foreign journalists. Some reporters who received visits were asked to show their paperwork, and others were warned to follow China's reporting rules.

The Foreign Ministry traditionally dealt with foreign reporters and routinely called in journalists for a dressing down when they were perceived to have stepped out of line. But the latest moves suggest that the powerful security apparatus has taken over the role of policing the overseas media.

One reporter who received a weekend visit said two uniformed policemen operated in a "good cop, bad cop" fashion. The reporter said one officer made threats and warned that journalists, who travel frequently, need to register with the local police every time they return to Beijing from a trip.

At least three Chinese news assistants working with foreign media organizations also reported that their family members received telephone calls from security officials.

Five foreign reporters said their homes were being monitored by plainclothes police officers, and one reported being followed and videotaped.

Several reporters in Beijing and Shanghai said they were prevented from working last Sunday near areas where protests had been called. Some were detained for hours, then released. But there were no new reports of uniformed and plainclothes officers beating foreign journalists, as happened Feb. 27 in the Wangfujing commercial area of Beijing.The foreign minister's denial Monday that any beatings occurred Feb. 27 was contradicted by numerous witness accounts and video evidence, including footage of uniformed officers grabbing BBC correspondent Damian Grammaticas by the hair and slammimg him to the floor of a police van.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China documented at least three cases from Feb. 27 of correspondents being physically injured, with one of them, from Bloomberg News, suffering severe injuries. The FCCC also said that nine journalists were detained for as long as four hours and that five had their equipment confiscated.

The Washington Post is not naming the other journalists to prevent them being singled out for talking about their harassment by police.

The clampdown appears to have succeeded in dampening any "jasmine" rallies in China. On Sunday, with police maintaining a strong presence in Beijing, there were few signs of protesters.

In Shanghai, only a few hundred people passed by what is normally a busy commercial part of the city - far fewer than the 500 or so on hand Feb. 27, when police used loud whistles and a water-spraying truck to stop crowds from forming.

A 31-year-old Shanghai resident named Yin, who works in the information technology industry, said he went to the rallies in Shanghai for two Sundays in February but thinks the movement is too disorganized and has no clear demands. "They should focus on specific requests that affect people's interests," said Yin, who asked that his full name not be used.

Despite the dismal turnout and the security clampdown, Yin said the rallies had succeeded in getting the government to more directly address such problems as inflation and soaring housing costs. "The rally information was blocked on the Internet, but it's become a good platform to promote things," he said. "And the rallies have generated a positive influence on the Chinese government."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company