BEIJING >> Chinese police have told foreign media not to turn up at spots that have been anonymously designated for weekly protests, threatening them with loss of their work permits and other punishments if they don’t comply, journalists said Thursday.
Mysterious online calls for Chinese rallies inspired by Middle Eastern demonstrations have fallen flat here though foreign media have flocked to the proposed rally sites to see if anyone would show up.
Though no large protests have occurred, at least one activist has been detained for being present at a proposed demonstration site.
At least one journalist was attacked by unidentified men while trying to report at a suggested rally site in Beijing last weekend and many others were harassed by police who confiscated equipment and erased video footage.
One European broadcast journalist said Thursday that he was told by police that there would be unspecified consequences if he went again to the site on Beijing’s popular Wangfujing shopping street. He asked not to be identified by name for fear it would affect his future Chinese visa applications.
He said that during his videotaped meeting at a police station Wednesday, officials told him he would be punished if he filmed the shopping street again and that his normal life in China would be disrupted. He said three other colleagues from other media reported having similar conversations with police.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said in a statement that some journalists reported being “accused of trying to help stir up a revolution, disrupt harmony in China and simply cause trouble.”
An Associated Press journalist who met with police Thursday was told his journalist card could be revoked if he went to Wangfujing again without prior approval from the local district office.
The requirement appears to signal a tightening of reporting rules in China, which were liberalized ahead of the Olympics to allow foreign media to travel freely and interview anyone as long as they first asked permission from the interviewee. Some sensitive areas, such as Tibet, have remained off-limits to reporters without special permits.
Online posts of unknown origin that first circulated on an overseas Chinese news website nearly two weeks ago have called for Chinese to gather peacefully at sites every Sunday in a show of people power meant to promote fairness and democracy. A renewed call Monday expanded the target cities to 35, from 27. China’s extensive Internet filtering and monitoring mean that most Chinese are unaware of the appeals.
David Bandurski, a media issues expert and China watcher at the University of Hong Kong, said the government reaction to the appeals has been surprisingly strong, particularly since no actual protests apparently took place, just anonymous calls for them posted on the Internet and shared via Twitter and other social media sites.
“We’re seeing sparks (online) but we don’t even know exactly where these sparks come from, or how representative they are of dissidents in China,” he said.
Government anxiety over possible protests could be linked in part to the upcoming session of China’s legislature that begins Saturday in Beijing, but Bandurski said official concern that simmering social issues could boil over was more likely to blame.
“Political meeting are always a cause for the jitters in China … but it’s not the meetings themselves that are so key,” he said. “It’s the fact that China is facing some really serious questions about the future of its economic growth, whether its sustainable and how, and the role political reform should play in that future.”
Many Chinese are frustrated over inflation, corruption and inadequate social benefits, the same issues said to have pushed people in the Middle East to take to the streets.
The messages called for a Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” — the name of mass protests in Tunisia that ousted that country’s longtime president and sparked the ongoing wave of revolts across the region.
Police stressed to the European journalist that there was no Jasmine Revolution brewing in China.
Indeed, there have been no obvious signs of demonstrations at designated sites in Shanghai and Beijing and no reports of protest activity in other Chinese cities over the past two Sundays.
However, a human rights activist who posted messages on Twitter about being present near the McDonald’s on Wangfujing on Feb. 20 has been detained by Beijing police on suspicion of taking part in an illegal demonstration, the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in an e-mailed statement Thursday.
The group said Wei Qiang was believed to be the only individual so far to be criminally detained for showing up at the rally location.