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China clamps down on business travelers

/ Source: The Associated Press

Business travel appears to be the latest victim of China's ever-tightening security crackdown before the Beijing Olympics.

Government officials confirmed Thursday that visas for business people will be tougher to get during the Olympic period. Authorities have repeatedly said the security measures are needed because the games, which begin in two weeks, are a target for terrorism.

In a report that appeared to underscore the threat, the official Xinhua News Agency said police in co-host city Shanghai said Thursday they had cracked a terrorist plot targeting the city's soccer stadium.

However, authorities did not give any details or say how serious the threat had been.

"We have staged raids and cracked a group of terrorists," Cheng Jiulong, head of Olympic security in Shanghai, was quoted as saying. He refused to say when the plot was detected, how many suspects were detained or where they were from.

Shanghai will host a dozen soccer matches during the Olympics.

Shanghai's Olympic venue, athlete housing and routes to the venue were safe, Cheng was cited as saying, but added: "The threat of terror attack still exists."

China's Olympic security concerns were not just confined to terrorist threats. Authorities have also taken no chances with potential protesters. Rural petitioners in the Chinese capital seeking redress for grievances have been taken away in police vans, and some migrant workers have been ordered to go home.

China has also stiffened its visa rules to keep out foreign activists and foreigners not properly employed in Beijing, fearing they could stage protests during an Olympics meant to present a flawless image of a modern China.

Now, Beijing, Shanghai and other Olympic cities have stopped issuing official invitation letters needed for business visas until late September, unless it involves employment or executing business contracts, an official with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Commerce said.

"We don't take in applications related to any other general business matters, such as attending conferences, visiting factories and business negotiations. Such applications will not be handled until after Sept. 20," Chen Yu said.

The change began around the beginning of July, he said.

Authorities do not want a repeat in Beijing of raucous protests that greeted the Olympic torch as it passed through London and Paris, and have refused visas to those with ties to activist groups or non-governmental organizations.

In Shanghai, a notice on the Web site of the Shanghai Foreign Economic Relations and Trade Commission said it will not support visas for routine business visits, market research or training until mid-September.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a press briefing Thursday that China is adjusting its visa policy in order to strength the security for the Olympic Games.

"The purpose is to strengthen our security work against the potential threats and necessary adjustments were made," he said.

The new visa procedure may be more time-consuming and complicated, Liu said, but will not affect those coming to China to engage in "normal" activities.

The changes cause the biggest headache for foreign businessmen in Hong Kong, who have long enjoyed quick access to the country's manufacturing capital just across the border in Guangdong province.

Multiple-entry business visas for those working in Hong Kong were put on hold in March, travel agents said, and will remain in place until after the Olympics, meaning extra hassle and money for every trip across the border.

Andrew Work, executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said the latest restriction on business visas will further impact business activities on the mainland.

"The vast majority of our members have some kind of business with China ... While the Olympics are important, business doesn't stop," he said.

Juergen Weckherlin, a German businessman and longtime resident of Hong Kong, said people were losing money because they cannot make trips that require face-to-face contact. He used to go mainland China four or five times a month to visit garment factories, he said.

"I understand they are very afraid because of some threats in the air, but people like me have a stable visa record and we have never done anything wrong," said Weckherlin, who runs a blog about the rules, The China Visa Blog.