China doesn’t roll out the welcome mat to foreign journalists, even at the best of times.
Whether it be the customs official checking your TV equipment as you arrive by plane or the officious guards protecting Tiananmen Square in Beijing, you quickly learn that you're not particularly welcome.
But with some Chinese activists taking their inspiration from the popular uprisings in the Middle East and calling online for protests, the Chinese authorities decided a heavy-handed response was required and foreign journalists were an easy target.
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.
The anonymous online call for protests from an overseas Chinese news website to promote democracy is very innovative in getting around the overwhelming security apparatus of the Chinese state.
Instead of protesting in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, notorious for the protests there in 1989 that had fatal consequences for so many, they have devised a way of people showing support for reforms without suffering beatings and arrests.
The plan is to start what they have described as a “Jasmine Revolution.” People simply stroll past designated places in Beijing and several other cities.
The rallying point in Beijing was Wangfujing shopping street.
It’s usually busy, especially on a Sunday. The foreign press descended, since that was where the story was. The area was blanketed by uniformed police, plainclothes agents, “volunteers” wearing red armbands and a heavily armed SWAT team in full body armor.
And just to make sure that people got the message that this was a place you shouldn’t be, a couple of street-cleaning machines were used to spray the area and police blew whistles and shoved people who loitered too long in the area.
But journalists don’t usually leave a good story unless they are forced to.
And then the security forces turned on them.
One journalist was punched, kicked, dragged along the ground by his feet and hit with broom handles. He ended up in hospital and is fine but commented it was all “unnecessary.”
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said in a written statement it was "appalled by the attack on one of our members by men who appeared to be plainclothes security officers in Beijing.” It urged the Chinese authorities to ensure reporters are protected while working in the country.
U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman issued statement, saying: "This type of harassment and intimidation is unacceptable and deeply disturbing."
The EU also condemned the violence against the journalists.
China blamed the reporters for the harassment because they ignored police instructions.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jian Yi said, "It's a busy street with many people passing through it. There was nothing going on. So many reporters went there on receiving whose instructions? Who called them to congregate there and mill around?"
She added, "Foreign reporters in China must respect China's rules and laws. This is an international norm."
China has now barred all foreign journalists from working near two of the meeting places in Beijing and Shanghai that online activists had called for peaceful protests at every weekend.
The Chinese authorities say reporters must now apply three days in advance to go there, similar to the restrictions in place for covering Tibet.
Until Sunday's incident, China's communist leadership had followed rules announced during the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, allowing journalists to work freely as long as they had the permission of the interviewee.
It’s very difficult to tell how many people responded to the call to protest in China.
Eyewitnesses say there seemed to be more people than usual around the sites in Beijing and Shanghai on Sunday but that might be because they were attracted to the large presence of the Chinese security forces.
Those that did are very brave.
Journalists got beaten, but those who were arrested face a more uncertain fate now.
By mobilizing their vast state-security forces China’s communist leaders appear to be very nervous that Middle East-style uprisings could take place there.
They have also detained dozens of political dissidents in recent weeks and restricted the Internet, especially microblogging sites.
It is one thing to stop protests, but, as they are aware, it’s more important to deal with the reasons behind the unrest.
A very interesting story was reported in China’s stated media, saying that China’s sacked Railway Minister is under investigation for allegedly embezzling $121 million.
Reports like this are what fuel the opposition in China because they see a lack of fairness in the system with corruption and nepotism rife.
The report went on to say that over 200,000 cases of embezzlement and bribery had been investigated since 2003.
China’s leaders understand the problem with President Hu Jintao earlier this year describing the situation as “grave”.
There have been many incidents reported over the past year of public demonstrations against corruption.
China’s leadership now has a balancing act of showing they have the power to control dissent while trying to appease public complaints without letting them boil over.