BEIJING >> U.S. and European diplomats have criticized the harassment of foreign reporters in China who were trying to cover calls for peaceful protests like those that swept the Middle East.
It wasn’t clear how many people, if any, tried to protest on Sunday, but Chinese authorities met the demonstration calls with an outsized response, detaining several Chinese and placing strict controls on foreign reporters.
Bloomberg News said one of its reporters was assaulted by five men who appeared to be plainclothes security and had a video camera confiscated, while a BBC journalist wrote that he and a colleague were roughed up while being thrown into a van by plainclothes thugs.
U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman said in a statement that he had met on Monday with foreign reporters who had been harassed, and called such intimidation "unacceptable and deeply disturbing."
"I am disappointed that the Chinese public security authorities could not protect the safety and property of foreign journalists doing their jobs," Huntsman said.
In a similar statement, the European Union’s delegation in China urged authorities to respect the right of foreign journalists to report freely.
It was the second Sunday in a row that China deployed large numbers of police to squelch overt protests modeled on recent democratic movements in the Middle East. This time, police near Shanghai’s People’s Square also blew shrill whistles nonstop to keep people moving, while street cleaning trucks in Beijing drove repeatedly up the Wangfujing shopping street, spraying water to keep crowds pressed to the edges.
Authorities had called foreign reporters in Beijing and Shanghai on Friday and over the weekend, indirectly warning them to stay away from protest sites. Pressure to tamp down protest is higher in Beijing. Senior politicians from around the country converge on the capital this week for the legislature’s annual session and a simultaneous meeting of a top advisory body — events that always bring high security.
In Beijing, police took away foreign news photographers, camera crews and reporters from The Associated Press, the BBC, Voice of America, German state broadcasters ARD and ZDF, and others, and told them special permission was needed to report from Wangfujing. In doing so, the government appears to be reinterpreting more relaxed rules put in place ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Joshua Rosenzweig, research manager for the U.S.-based human rights group Dui Hua Foundation, said the new restrictions on foreign reporters have created a precedent. "Once they start taking away or eating away at some of the more liberal measures they set out, one wonders in the future how often they’ll do the same thing," he said.
Online posts of unknown origin that first circulated on an overseas Chinese news website 11 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. People reached by phone at businesses in the cities of Tianjin, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Shenyang and Harbin on Sunday said no demonstrations occurred.
A renewed call on Monday expanded the target cities to 35, from 27.
Beyond the several Web postings, the calls lack a clear leader or organization and a well-defined agenda — ingredients experts say are crucial to the success of protest movements. China’s extensive Internet filtering and monitoring mean that most Chinese are unaware of the appeals, effectively limiting the audience.
Associated Press writer Alexa Olesen contributed to this report.