- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2011

BEIJING (AP) — Officials in China’s capital said Sunday that foreign reporters must seek government permission to conduct interviews in Beijing, taking a hard interpretation of current, more liberal regulations amid Internet calls for Middle East-style popular protests.

Li Honghai, vice director of Beijing’s Foreign Affairs Office, said reporters must apply and get government permission to conduct any news gathering within the city center.

Mr. Li’s announcement at a news conference makes explicit the restrictions police began imposing more than a week ago following online postings of unknown origin for protests at designated spots in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities every Sunday. In the past week, police have followed foreign reporters in Beijing and, in some cases, stopped foreign TV news crews from filming even innocuous subjects because they lacked permission.

On the third such Sunday since the postings first appeared, no apparent demonstrations occurred in Beijing or Shanghai, though as in previous weeks the designated sites drew onlookers and heavy security. In Shanghai, as a cold rain fell, police detained at least 17 foreign reporters for showing up at the protest site, People’s Square, for not having permission to be there.

The requirement for permission shows how nervous the authoritarian government is about the calls for protests, even though China’s economy continues to hum and living standards improve.

Beijing officials used the news conference to denounce 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,” said city government spokeswoman Wang Hui.

Requiring permission marks a rollback of more relaxed regulations governing foreign reporters that first were instituted for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and then made permanent. Those rules dropped an earlier requirement of official permission to report and instead said reporters only needed the consent of the “work unit” or person they wanted to interview.

Mr. Li denied that requiring permission marked a retreat. Rather, he said, the need for permission was the Beijing government’s interpretation of the regulations. “Beijing’s local policy is a further and more detailed measure,” he said.

In a sign of official jitters, police swarmed over a shopping mall in Beijing’s university district Sunday afternoon and disrupted some cell phone services after large numbers of students congregated there, witnesses said.

“I saw a lot more people, some of them students, than there normally are outside at midday today. There were people wearing red armbands and police officers,” said a woman surnamed Wang at the Caoyuanfanmaishi restaurant in the shopping mall.

At the two designated protest sites in Beijing, both busy shopping streets, large numbers of uniformed and plainclothes police patrolled and scrutinized passers-by. Foreign reporters who managed to pass or avoid police checkpoints at Wangfujing were followed and videotaped.

At the other Beijing site, Xidan, officers checked identification cards of people and questioned and filmed journalists outside the nearby subway station. Reporters were told to leave and were made to board a parked bus where their press accreditation details were recorded.

Associated Press writers Gillian Wong and Charles Hutzler in Beijing and Elaine Kurtenbach in Shanghai contributed to this report.