China Blames Foreigners for Trying to Foment Unrest

 Published: 5/8/2011 12:10:04 AM GMT
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BEIJING — Chinese and American officials are polishing off scripts for a ritual that is set to unfold in Washington on Monday and Tuesday. During a meeting known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, they will smile across conference tables and talk about cooperating on a range of issues: trade, currency, North Korea.

But that kind of theater seems more removed from events within China than at any time in recent years. In the past three months, some significant foreign groups have been subjected to intensifying pressure from the authorities, reflecting growing fears here about the influence of foreigners and Western liberal ideas.

Good will between the United States and China is scarce. At the meetings this week, the Americans are expected to talk bluntly about human rights, while the Chinese government has already increased its criticism of the West, with some officials telling foreign diplomats that they believe the United States is fomenting revolution.

At least 60 activities organized by the United States Embassy in Beijing — including cultural forums, school programs, ambassadorial visits — were canceled between February and April because of interference by the Chinese authorities, and some European missions have been similarly pressured. Several university conferences involving foreigners have been canceled, and the Ministry of Education is stepping up warnings to Chinese scholars heading abroad that they not take part in “anti-China” activities or engage with groups that promote democracy.

The scrutiny has applied to some nonprofit groups, too, with several — particularly those that receive financing from the United States government or the European Union — being visited more frequently by tax officials.

At the same time, China has waged its harshest crackdown on liberal speech in years: hundreds of Chinese have been detained, imprisoned, beaten, interrogated or put under house arrest.

The government had for years guarded against Western influences, including blocking sites like Twitter and Facebook, but those restrictions have intensified since revolts began sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

The clampdown is concentrated on foreign groups or activities that have significant ties to foreign governments, run prominent outreach programs, encourage free speech or promote Internet freedom.

Senior Chinese officials appear to believe that the United States in particular helped set off and sustain the uprisings that toppled dictators in the Arab world. In mid-February, messages appeared on the Chinese Internet calling for people to hold similar protests across the nation. Some of the people spreading word of the so-called Jasmine Revolution are Chinese who live overseas.

One message called for Chinese to protest on Feb. 20 at a McDonald’s outlet on Wangfujing, a popular shopping street in Beijing, and the government became concerned when Jon M. Huntsman Jr., who was then the American ambassador to China, appeared that afternoon outside the restaurant.

Embassy officials said Mr. Huntsman, who left his job at the end of April, was not aware of the calls for a protest, but the Chinese government quickly began canceling outreach activities sponsored by the American Embassy. That included one-time appearances by Mr. Huntsman in Chinese cities and regularly scheduled education programs in which American officials meet with Chinese students, according to interviews with foreigners and Chinese.

“We have expressed our objections to these measures to senior Chinese officials on multiple occasions,” said Richard Buangan, an embassy spokesman.

Although some embassy programs have resumed, few people here expect the government’s attitude to thaw anytime soon.

“I think this is a new normal,” said Sara Davis, executive director of Asia Catalyst, a nonprofit group in New York that works with about a dozen grassroots Chinese organizations on issues concerning H.I.V. and AIDS. “I don’t think China has any reason to loosen restrictions. They geared up for a trial run and didn’t get any pushback.”

“They’re casting a broader net,” she added, “and targeting anyone willing to speak their minds.”

Ms. Davis said her group had not experienced difficulties because its Chinese partners worked quietly. But other foreign nonprofit groups and their employees say they are under a microscope, in an acceleration of a trend that took shape last year.

A Chinese worker for one group was recently interviewed by state security officers and told that officials were carefully assessing the effects of foreign nonprofit organizations in China, according to a foreigner who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation.

The Beijing office of one American nonprofit group was visited three times in three weeks by officials from local tax and commerce bureaus, after having been paid just one such call in the previous eight months, a representative of the group said. The officials characterized the inquiries as routine, but the timing and lines of questioning left little doubt that the visits were linked to the calls for a Jasmine Revolution. Tax and commerce officers asked the representative for details about the group’s source of financing as well as its activities, partners and means of promoting itself.

Other American groups have faced a similar increase in scrutiny, the representative said, particularly those that receive money from the State Department. One group had been forced to account for virtually every project it financed, he said. Groups that received money from the E.U. also faced new bureaucratic hassles, he said.

Meanwhile, several conferences involving foreigners have been canceled in recent weeks. One theory is that the cancellations were related to new rules posted on a central government Web site on Feb. 14 that were ostensibly aimed at controlling government expenses. But the rules impose severe restrictions on foreign participation: such meetings cannot exceed 100 people, international conferences must be approved by both provincial and central officials, and no “important” foreign guests can be invited without permission.

“The cynic in me believes that, given the likely timing of this decision and of the onset of the Egyptian protests, this is not really about money or the value of international conferences, but about minimizing extended face-to-face dialogues with foreigners who might share ideas that were ‘bu shufu,’ ” said one American involved in cultural events, using the Chinese phrase for “discomforting.”

Foreign journalists have also faced unusually direct harassment from security officials. Starting in late February, scores of journalists were warned about their coverage and visited at their homes.

In meetings in February and March with one American journalist, security officers tried to make the case that American officials, together with foreign journalists and others with ties overseas, were conspiring to stir up chaos in China. They talked about the appearance of Mr. Huntsman at the McDonald’s on Feb. 20, and they mentioned a meeting that he held with foreign journalists at the embassy on March 10, citing them as proof of the United States’ hand in fanning the flames of revolution.

Mia Li contributed research.

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