Foreigners report random ID checks. Police check on chemicals in school science labs. A music festival is postponed. With 3 1/2 months to go, China is ramping up its campaign to tighten security ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
Authorities are taking no chances that Beijing's moment in the international spotlight will be marred by protests or attacks. The pro-Tibet demonstrations that are dogging the Olympic torch on its world tour have only served to heighten the government's worries.
Beijing's Public Security Bureau kicked off an "Olympic security" campaign this month that will run through October, saying "some unstable factors" could affect the August games.
Twice in recent months, the government has accused Muslim separatists in the Xinjiang region of terror plots tied to the Olympics. Activist groups critical of China's human rights abuses and its rule over Tibet have pledged to try to disrupt the games.
"They certainly have reason to be worried," said David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "Given the failure to be prepared for what happened in Tibet, one should not be surprised by overreaction."
Tighter security ahead of Olympics
The Beijing campaign includes increased security checks at hotels, entertainment areas and rented homes, the security bureau's Web site said. Officials will also seek to control access to explosives and firearms, ensure the safety of gas and oil pipelines and crack down on crime.
Broader measures range from random ID checks to visa restrictions that severely limit who can visit, live or work in China. Even public gatherings are suspect, with police ordering the cancellation of several major events, including a popular Beijing music festival in May.
"I understand the (police are) mainly concerned about young people gathering together and doing radical things," said Zhang Fan, founder of the MIDI Music Festival, which authorities put off until October.
Schools have been told some 250 chemicals are restricted for purchase between May 1 and Oct. 17, said a senior official at a school in Beijing. Police recently inspected the school's boilers and demanded details on how chemicals are stored in science labs, the official said, requesting anonymity to avoid any official repercussions.
Staff at another school, the International School of Beijing, have been advised to carry identification documents and to be prepared for random breathalyzer tests on the street, communications director Lance Witte said.
"We have a weekly update on safety and security now because there's always something new," he said.
For many foreigners, the biggest concern has been a tightening of visa requirements.
In a country where control has long been paramount, China faces unprecedented challenges when an estimated half million visitors come to Beijing for the Olympics, along with 10,500 international athletes and 18,000 journalists.
Travel agents in Hong Kong, a major gateway into China, reported early this month that the government visa office had declared multiple-entry business visas would not be available from mid-April until mid-October. In the past, such visas were easily obtainable.
More rules came last week, including requirements for additional documentation for business visas and for hotel bookings and plane tickets for tourist visas.
Internet forums for travelers and Beijing residents are buzzing with complaints and tips on circumventing the rules. A popular site is The China Visa Blog, started by German businessman Juergen Weckherlin to help navigate the new rules.
Security efforts bring complaints
"I understand they want heightened security but this way is the completely wrong way to do it," said Weckherlin. "If they are afraid of troublemakers in whatever sense, they know how to stop them. This seems like a universal punishment."
Based in Hong Kong, Weckherlin says he needs to cross the border regularly to oversee factory work for his garment business.
"We can't plan when we go. Sometimes I have to go two or three times a week, especially during peak production time in May, June and July," he said. If the difficulties aren't resolved fairly quickly, he expects businesses "will consider placing orders somewhere else, like Vietnam."
Adding to the confusion has been China's continued insistence that no changes have been made to its visa policy. "We will continue to facilitate foreigners who want to come to China. This policy is consistent and has remained unchanged," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday.
Visa changes and denials
Both the American and European chambers of commerce in Hong Kong sent urgent letters to the Chinese government last week, citing several cases of visa denials and raising concerns over the impact on businesses.
The visa changes have also created uncertainty for many foreigners who are working in China on business visas, a common though technically prohibited practice. A work visa, which is more difficult to acquire, is needed for employment.
An expatriate magazine editor says up to 70 percent of the foreigners on his staff could be gone by July.
"Huge numbers of people could be in trouble — people working in music, arts, theater, journalism, industries that hugely benefit the city and country," he said, requesting not to be quoted by name for fear of government reprisals.
Foreigners in China also report new random checks of identification.
A 48-year-old American said he was accosted by police twice at a McDonald's in a town just north of Beijing, demanding he show his passport and residence permit. Foreigners are required to do so, but the regulation had not been routinely enforced.
"I think that's ridiculous," said the Florida native, who asked not to be identified out of worry his comments could jeopardize the renewal of his visa. "If I go to Tianjin or Shanghai, of course I would carry my passport, but if I'm just going down the street, then why are they making a big deal?"
Migrant workers affected too
Foreigners aren't the only ones being scrutinized. Since March, all migrant workers are required to show a sponsor letter from their landlord to register with local police, said Wei Wei, founder of Little Bird, a Beijing-based activist group.
Virtually the only people assured of no hassles are those attending the Olympic Games. Mark, a 29-year-old Canadian, said he and his girlfriend came to China in 2006, and got jobs teaching English. Their visas expire soon, and they had been worried about renewing them. They now feel more confident: They won Olympic tickets in a lottery.
Still, he is concerned about friends.
"I have a lot of friends who are going home because they don't have Olympic tickets," he said. "That's ridiculous. They want to be here, Olympics or no Olympics. China's kicking them out for no real good reason."