China's capital is increasing its controls on foreign journalists amid calls on the Internet for anti-government protests styled on those rocking the Middle East and north Africa.
Reporters must now apply for government permission to conduct any news gathering within Beijing's center, the vice director of the city's Foreign Affairs Office, Li Honghai, told a news conference Sunday.
No details were given. Li said the verbal order was merely Beijing's interpretation of a 2008 decree from the State Council, China's Cabinet. "Beijing's local policy is a further and more detailed measure," Li said. China had relaxed reporting rules ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, dropping the requirement for official permission to report. The State Council extended those relaxed rules after the games in its decree, leading some to hail a new era of openness for foreign reporters, albeit still under strict limitations.
The appeals have drawn few outright demonstrators but have sparked a harsh police crackdown, an indication of how deeply they have unnerved authorities constantly on guard for any sign of challenges to Communist rule.
Police and security agents shooed away onlookers and assaulted and detained journalists who turned up at the protest sites in Beijing and Shanghai. Also at Sunday's news conference, Beijing city government spokeswoman Wang Hui denounced the Internet appeals as an attempt to undermine China's stability.
"All clear-minded people will know that these people have chosen the wrong place and have the wrong idea. The things they want to see take place have not and cannot occur in Beijing," Wang said.
Protest calls were issued for Sunday, and large numbers of uniformed and plainclothes police patrolled and scrutinized passers-by on the pedestrian shopping street of Wangfujing.
Foreign reporters who managed to get through police checkpoints were followed and videotaped. China's censors have carefully shaped local coverage of the protests in the Middle East to discourage Chinese citizens from drawing inspiration from them.