By Ed Flanagan and Adrienne Mong, NBC News
Chinese police officers patrol Beijing's Xidan shopping district on March 6, 2011. Xidan was one of two sites in the capital designated as a protest zone by anonymous internet users.
BEIJING – Midway through a press conference ostensibly called to address the continued hostility towards foreign journalists attempting to cover China’s nascent – if at all existing – Jasmine Revolution, Li Xiaoming of Beijing’s Traffic Management Bureau asked the question he thought everybody in the room was dying to ask:
“I’m sure all of you might have this question in mind,” said Li matter-of-factly. “How can we make sure that the vehicles to be used by deputies and representatives [from this week’s National People’s Congress] are safe and smoothly running?”
Few reports of the press conference that was held at the Information Office of Beijing Municipality Sunday afternoon will probably note this, but the entire opening statement had nothing to do with China’s crackdown on dissidents and press freedoms for foreign journalists and everything to do with the great lengths the traffic bureau had gone to ease traffic conditions and foster a “harmonious driving culture” in the capital.
Journalists present were forced to sit through a long list of traffic accomplishments and new municipal initiatives before they were allowed to ask the questions everybody really wanted answers to. Namely, what was wrong with reporting the Jasmine Revolution? What are the new restrictions that Beijing has placed on reporting in the capital? And would Chinese security agents continue to obstruct reporting by foreign journalists?
With regard to the former, Beijing city government spokeswoman, Wang Hui, confidently squashed the question, declaring that attempts to call for protests like the ones seen in the Middle East and Africa were “doomed to fail.”
"Cool-headed people know that these people have chosen the wrong place, and their ideas and plans are wrong," said Wang, "In Beijing, we have had and will have no such incidents."
Wang continued, noting, "Over the past 30 years or more, China's success and economic progress have been broadly recognized. The Communist Party's leadership and government's policies are in line with the people's will and their hearts."
The only hint that the local journalists assembled may have had a differing opinion of Wang’s statement came from the first question of the press conference by a Xinhua reporter referencing reports that came out late last week that Beijing was considering using people’s mobile phone signals to track their movements.
The announcement stirred deep privacy concerns in China. And while Wang suggested that Beijing was merely studying a proposal to utilize such technology, the fact that Li of the Traffic Bureau had earlier boasted of such technology was perhaps a not-so-tacit reminder to those would-be protestors that the technology was indeed at the government’s disposal to monitor not just political dissidents, but foreign reporters as well.
Wang was also quick to rebuff requests for clarification of the rules governing journalists operating in busy areas around town. He expressed frustration at repeated questions about the new restrictions put in place.
“I myself believe this [the requirements for interviewing in Beijing] is quite easy to understand,” said Wang, ”So we find this very perplexing why some foreign correspondents find this difficult to understand.”
Wang seemingly answered her own question when she later suggested that some foreign journalists in China were intent on creating the news instead of reporting it.
In response to a statement by one foreign reporter that their role in China was merely to report events as they happen, Wang said, “Just now you said foreign correspondents are not here to generate news, I cannot disagree more.”
Such an assertion had no basis in truth in western Beijing’s Xidan shopping district Monday, though, where calls for further protests there were belied by throngs of shoppers taking in the balmier weather. It was impossible to tell who was browsing and who was strolling in support of the so-called Jasmine rallies.
But it was easy to spot the security forces. The number of uniform police didn’t seem as large as those we saw last Sunday in Wangfujing, but there were many, many more plainclothes officers. Typically sporting sneakers and leather jackets with earpieces, they stood mostly on their own — not in groups as they were last week. Several were carrying video cameras, which again last week were used to film foreign journalists on the scene.
Western journalists who wandered through the neighborhood were stopped immediately and checked for IDs. Most were told politely to leave the area.
Combative as Wang’s statements and Beijing’s actions in Xidan today were, they were perhaps the clearest reflection of Beijing’s current perception of foreign reporters here in China so far. Whether time will heal this presently strained relationship remains to be seen, but in the meantime it is safe to say that the level of mistrust being exhibited by China’s governing party towards the foreign press corps has not been seen in quite some time.