Chinese police are further intensifying pressure on foreign reporters, warning them to stay away from spots designated for Middle East-inspired protests and threatening them with expulsion or a revoking of their credentials.
The warnings show how unnerved the authorities are by the online calls for protests every Sunday. The appeals, which started two weeks ago, have attracted few outright demonstrators but many onlookers, loads of journalists and swarms of police.
Staff from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and numerous other overseas news organizations were called in for videotaped meetings with Beijing police Wednesday and Thursday and told that reporters trying to film or interview near the proposed demonstration spots in Beijing or Shanghai this weekend would be punished.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said in a statement that some journalists reported being accused by police "of trying to help stir up a revolution, disrupt harmony in China and simply cause trouble."
The warnings ratchet up notices from police earlier this week that put a section of the Wangfujing shopping street in downtown Beijing and an area near People's Square in Shanghai off limits for foreign media.
However, a British broadcast journalist, who declined to be named in line with company policy, said her team was told that it was not allowed to film anywhere in China, including basic street scenes, without prior approval.
The extreme reaction signals a retreat since restrictions on foreign media were eased in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. In 2006, then Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao announced that local officials could not intervene in the work of foreign reporters doing interviews, though some sensitive areas, such as Tibet, remained off limits to reporters without special permits.
Foreign reporters have always been afforded greater latitude than domestic ones.
In a tense news conference Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu repeatedly said there was no change in the reporting regulations. Jiang said the rules were clear and that reporters were no longer journalists if they broke the law and created news.
"Some people are eager for fame and try to create trouble for China. For people with their kind of motive, no law can protect them," Jiang said.
The furor surrounds a news event that apparently never transpired. No large protests seem to have erupted at the designated demonstration spots, though at least one activist was detained for being present at one of them. One journalist was also attacked by unidentified men while trying to report from the Beijing shopping street Sunday, and others had their equipment confiscated and footage erased by police.
The situation evolved out of online posts of unknown origin that first circulated on an overseas Chinese news website nearly two weeks ago, calling for Chinese to gather peacefully at sites every Sunday in a show of people power meant to promote fairness and democracy. A renewed call this week expanded the target cities to 35 from 27. China's extensive Internet filtering and monitoring mean most Chinese are unaware of the appeals.
David Bandurski, a media issues expert and China watcher at the University of Hong Kong, said the government reaction to the appeals has been surprisingly strong, particularly since no protests apparently took place.
"We're seeing sparks (online) but we don't even know exactly where these sparks come from, or how representative they are of dissidents in China," he said.
The messages called for a Chinese "Jasmine Revolution" — the name of the mass protests in Tunisia that ousted that country's longtime president and sparked the ongoing wave of revolts across the region.
Government anxiety over possible protests could be linked in part to the annual meeting of China's legislature and its advisory body that kicked off Thursday in Beijing, but Bandurski said official concern that simmering social issues could boil over was more likely to blame.
"Political meetings are always a cause for the jitters in China ... but it's not the meetings themselves that are so key," he said. "It's the fact that China is facing some really serious questions about the future of its economic growth, whether it's sustainable and how, and the role political reform should play in that future."
Many Chinese are frustrated over inflation, corruption and inadequate social benefits, the same issues said to have pushed people in the Middle East to take to the streets.
A human rights activist who posted messages on Twitter describing the scene at Wangfujing on Feb. 20 has been detained by Beijing police on suspicion of taking part in an illegal demonstration, the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in a statement Thursday.
Associated Press writer Gillian Wong contributed to this report.