BEIJING — The Chinese Foreign Ministry announced Tuesday that foreign news reporters were barred from a major Beijing shopping district that's been designated on the Internet as the gathering point for anti-government protests.
The highly unusual move — such restrictions usually are applied only to sensitive regions such as Tibet — underscores the concern with which the Chinese government views the protest calls, which have been named the "Jasmine Revolution" after the demonstrations that started in Tunisia and have swept the Arab world.
Public response to the announced gatherings has been tiny, but Chinese security officials have reacted with huge deployments of uniformed and plainclothes officers, both in the capital and in other cities across the country.
On Sunday, journalists who attempted to cover the scheduled protest at the Wangfujing shopping district — where no protesters actually gathered — were detained, shoved around and, in at least one case, assaulted by men in civilian clothes who wore earpieces and were clearly in communication with uniformed police.
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At a regularly scheduled news conference Tuesday afternoon, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu endorsed the police actions: "As far as I know, over the weekend the Beijing police properly handled the incident at Wangfujing."
She said the police were forced to move in because the foreign journalists had disrupted the high-traffic shopping area. She also made it clear that Wangfujing now is considered off limits without prior approval from local authorities, a departure from previous media guidelines, which required only that reporters have permission from the people or organizations they intend to interview.
She did not clarify whether such restrictions might apply to other areas as well.
"If you don't understand those regulations," she said, referring to the rules that govern foreign reporters' activities in China, "then the local authorities can offer help explaining them to you."
News about the calls for protests has been blocked from Chinese media and Internet portals, and Jiang stuck to that blackout Tuesday, refusing to say why she thought so many journalists had gathered in Wangfujing on Sunday. At first she said she didn't know, and then she said the question was inappropriate.
The lack of explanation for what happened — and confusion about what guidelines the government expects reporters to follow — was typical in many ways of how China's authoritarian regime operates. In the days before the announced gatherings, state or local security branches detained dozens of Chinese activists, often without any formal legal explanation.
The U.S.-based Chinese-language website that carried the announcements, boxun.com, has said that it no longer will do so because the online attacks that followed disabled its ability to function. While its editor, Watson Meng, said in a recent interview that he didn't know who was behind the campaign to disable his site, he added that he'd concluded it was related to the "Jasmine" posts.
On Monday, the U.S. Embassy released a statement from Ambassador Jon Huntsman saying he was "disappointed that the Chinese public security authorities could not protect the safety and property of foreign journalists doing their jobs."
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