The call to meet with the police came at about 5 p.m. on Friday. I suggested that as it was getting late, perhaps we could meet next week. The caller declined, and instead she gave me a rapid-fire review of China’s reporting rules, namely that reporters must get subjects’ permission before conducting interviews. The reason for the urgency, though unstated, was clear. The online organizers of last week’s effort to bring the Middle East’s anti-authoritarian uprisings to China have called for further protests in 23 cities beginning Sunday, and the government is worried.
The organizers’ original effort did not result in a “Jasmine Revolution,” and it seems unlikely that subsequent attempts will either. But you couldn’t tell that from the official reaction. Over the past several days police have summoned, interrogated or put under house arrest more than 100 people, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group. Five activists—Ran Yunfei, Chen Wei and Ding Mao in Sichuan province, Hua Chunhui in Jiangsu and Liang Haiyi in Guangdong–have been detained on “endangering state security” charges, and three lawyers—Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong and Teng Biao—and activist Gu Chuan have been held incommunicado, CHRD reported. The crackdown is one of the most extreme in recent years, topping even the responses to the 2008 release of Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo last year, CHRD international director Renee Xia said in a written statement.
The pressure on foreign journalists is of course far more subtle, but extraordinary in its own way. Over the past 24 hours several other journalists have reported being contacted by police, who apparently are trying to warn all Beijing-based foreign correspondents ahead of tomorrow’s scheduled protests. That’s a step I haven’t encountered while reporting in China over the past four years. Seeking permission before interviewing a subject is standard journalistic procedure, and hardly an inconvenience. But a brief article in Friday’s China Daily cited by police cryptically states that journalists must “apply for approval, in accordance with relevant laws and regulations, before they conduct interviews in Beijing.” With whom journalists must apply wasn’t made clear, giving rise to the possibility that police will use this notice to justify widespread restrictions on reporting.
Since the calls for protest were made on boxun.com, an overseas website popular with Chinese activists, the site has been crippled by hackers, and forced to temporarily change to a new address, boxunblog.com. On Chinese websites words related to the protest have been censored. Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging service, gives no results for searches for “jasmine” and “Wangfujing”—the name of the central shopping street that is site of the Beijing protest. Even the Chinese name of Jon Huntsman, Jr. (洪博培,or Hong Bopei), the U.S. ambassador to China, has been censored. Huntsman, who his leaving his post later this year and may possibly seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, was spotted briefly at last week’s demonstration, and video of him in sunglasses and a jacket with an American flag on the shoulder has circulated online. The embassy said he was merely walking through the area with family, but his presence has angered nationalist bloggers who see the influence of the U.S. in the call for protests.
It is not just people who have been harmonized in the recent crackdown. In recent days workers have swaddled the Beijing protest site, a McDonald’s near Tiananmen Square, in metal fencing. (See photos by French journalist Jordan Pouille here.) A similar approach was taken to restrict views of the Beijing apartment complex where Liu Xia, wife of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, lives under house arrest. The barriers, like the recent detentions and online restrictions, indicate Chinese authorities are deeply concerned about protests spreading. President Hu Jintao told a recent meeting of provincial and ministerial officials that they must “solve prominent problems which might harm the harmony and stability of the society.” On Thursday Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu emphasized the country’s rapid economic development and said that nothing “could shake China’s resolve.” The prospect of a widespread, Egyptian-style revolt in China seems unlikely. But you couldn’t tell from the behavior of the police. While Sunday’s protests seem destined to be non-events, the authorities are trying their hardest to make them into something.