Monday, March 07, 2011

High security in Beijing for 3rd week

For a third Sunday in a row police and security personnel were out in force on Beijing's streets to prevent any gatherings after more online calls to protest. Anonymous postings had urged people to stroll silently in areas of major cities across the country. But so far there have been few signs of any outspoken demonstrations. But as Chinese authorities attempt to stop any signs of disquiet, they risk alienating themselves and damaging the image of China abroad.

A quiet rebellion

On the 20th February a large media presence outside a branch of McDonalds in Wangfujing attracted only curious shoppers, a few would-be protesters and vast numbers of police. At least one person was dragged away by plain clothed police for picking up a flower but he was later released as they became frustrated by a pursuing scrum of photographers. The crowds were broken up and normality was quickly restored.

The following week brought a far harsher response from authorities. Police were out in force, checking papers of both foreigners and local citizens and preventing access to the Wangfujing shopping precinct for any identifiable media. Some photographers and cameramen were arrested while others were beaten by plain clothed security personnel [BBC].

Even before this Sunday's most recent call to demonstrate, foreign media had been warned that any attempt to report the protests might result in the revoking of visas. But that did not dissuade some from visiting parts of the city where gatherings for a protest 'stroll' had been called for.

Increased security

Wangfujing remained quiet, with no signs of any gathering and once again there was a large police presence. In Xidan, another popular shopping area in the west of town there were also large numbers of police. Some foreigners had their passports checked and any journalists identified were told to leave the area.

The BBC's Damian Grammaticas reported hundreds of uniformed police posted every few metres and that reporters were warned off of filming or interviewing anyone.

But it was not just journalists that were accosted by police. Many Chinese tourists with cameras were being stopped and asked for ID. In several parts of the city mobile data signals were blocked and in the skies above a police helicopter circled looking for any unusual activity on the ground [pictured].

But police activity was not confined only to central Beijing. There was a strong police presence in Zhongguancun near Peking University after online messages suggested a planned gathering by students. The subway station was also shut to thwart any influx of would-be protesters and the mobile phone networks were also disrupted in the area surrounding the university.

In other parts of the country there were some reported gatherings, but these were mostly media and police. In Shanghai, at least 17 foreign journalists were detained at the proposed protest site, People's Square, for not having permission to be there.  European and Japanese journalists in Shanghai were reportedly herded into an underground bunker-like room and kept for two hours before being released.

"People want stability"

Chinese authorities maintain that there is no desire amongst the people for any form of revolution, and that the calls to protest was an effort to bring instability to China. "Certain people at home and abroad are using the Internet to instigate illegal gatherings in China and play the so-called street politics," said Wang Hui, director of the Information Office in Beijing. "But sober-minded people can see that they have chosen the wrong place. It will never happen in Beijing."

"The people want stability. Those who wish to bring chaos here are harboring illusions," Wang said at a news conference in the Chinese capital. "They are doomed to fail." [CNN]

Media harassment

Li Hongliang, deputy director of the city's foreign affairs office, again warned foreign media that they must follow the rules. "The important matter is that reporters must obtain prior consent from individuals, institutions and work units that you wish to interview," he said. "We welcome foreign correspondents to report in Beijing and present the international community a true image of China." However, media restrictions are tightening with authorities now requiring foreign journalists to first submit formal applications before reporting in downtown Beijing [AP].

The tighter restrictions and harassment of foreign journalists has not gone unnoticed abroad. On Friday German authorities summoned a senior Chinese diplomat in Berlin for a dressing down following intimidation of foreign correspondents in Beijing.

Cyrill Nunn, a Foreign Ministry official supervising relations with Asia, registered Germany's protest and called for China to respect freedom of the press and opinion, a ministry spokesman said.

Nunn said correspondents must able to do their work without hindrance. The Chinese diplomat was the number two at the embassy, as the ambassador was out of town [Monsters & Critics].

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said police had summoned dozens of journalists in Beijing and Shanghai after at least 16 were detained near the sites of anti-government rallies on February 27th.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Thursday called on authorities in China to allow accredited German journalists to conduct 'unhampered and free' reporting. It was something the US Ambassador Jon Huntsman also raised as he expressed his concern in a statement following the events in Wangfujing [US Embassy in China]. Even some sections of Chinese press have questioned the damage done to China's image by the harassment of foreign and domestic media. 

Damaging the image of China

The SCMP in an editorial says that foreign journalists play an important role in informing the world of the changes taking place in China and that even "critical reporting from journalists of any nationality is a crucial element in the free flow of information."

But it appears that Chinese authorities are unrepentant for their increased restrictions. David Bandurski, an analyst at the China Media Project of the University of Hong Kong, says, "They have gone into control mode once again. What we are seeing now, in the short term, is China is closing in on itself, because it doesn't have another answer or response." He says that the, "Intimidation of journalists is the classic response. It is not necessarily entirely new, but it is something we have not seen for a long time." [NYT]

Over the weekend, the police called or visited more than a dozen foreign journalists at their homes, including reporters and photographers for The New York Times, The Associated Press, CNN, NBC and Bloomberg News. One person said he received a knock on his door as early as 05:30 on Sunday. Another was not home when a police officer called, but a child who answered the phone was reportedly interrogated. A third said an officer told him that the Public Security Ministry's Guobao, the domestic security arm, was in charge of the operation to keep foreign journalists in line. It is the same department that also keeps track of dissidents.

"In 10 years living in these parts, this kind of unannounced call was a first," said the reporter, who refused to be identified for fear of retaliation. As well as being told to "abide by the rules" and warned not to report on protests some have said they have encountered even greater pressure. Several journalists said over Twitter that one colleague had been ordered by the police to sign a document explicitly saying the journalist would never again report on the so-called Jasmine Revolution in China. The journalist refused.

And in a worrying sign that the powers of the state are increasing at least four journalists have reported what appeared to be the hacking of their Gmail accounts, according to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China.

In Wangfujing there were signs of  racial profiling as police attempted to weed out foreign journalists. Asians appeared to encounter little or no harassment, while officers flanked by burly Chinese men pulled aside white foreigners to check their passports. Such reports will do nothing for China's image as a tourist friendly city if such activity becomes too commonplace [Anti-western sentiment in China / Chinese Nationalism]. 

All this activity comes as China held its National People's Congress and announced plans to hold down inflation and build the economy [BBC]. By walling itself in China may undermine many of the things it is trying to protect.

Coming only a year after the Google fracas, the Internet search giant along with other western Internet giants were accused of having "participated directly in the social storm that has engulfed the Middle East" according to the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. "They have played a key role in manufacturing social disorder" the paper says, and goes on to claim Google meddles in the political affairs of other countries. "It is not just a search engine tool — it is a tool to extend American hegemony," the paper insists.

The People's Daily likens Google to the British East India Company, which during the Opium Wars, "forced open the doors of China with its own gunships, sending China into a century of chaos and leaving Chinese with a bitter history of humiliation." This is something China will not allow to happen again, the paper says. "China will not stand by and let a new British East India Company repeat the events of history." [CMP / People's Daily - Chinese]

In a poll conducted recently by the BBC [Full document - PDF] statistics show that views of China have been uneven over the last few years. While substantially positive in 2005, public opinion across many nations reached a low point in 2009. They have since recovered and while overall perceptions still tend negative, positive views now nearly match negative ones. Such opinions will not be improved if the country continues on its current path.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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