Monday, February 28, 2011

Getting harassed by the Chinese police

Getting harassed by the Chinese police

Beijing, China (CNN) - I had thought China's situation was significantly different from the Middle East because the government has been successful in bringing better living standards to the people here. You would think that would make Beijing feel less vulnerable. But perhaps all authoritarian regimes react the same.

My crew and I went out Sunday afternoon to see if there was going to be a public response to anonymous calls on the Internet to stage protests and begin a Tunisia-style "Jasmine Revolution" in China. When we arrived at the shopping district Wangfujing, the designated protest location, hundreds of uniformed and plain clothes police patrolled the area. We waited to see if any protesters would show up. But after half an hour, there was no obvious demonstration.

We started shooting a short report and within minutes the police descended upon us. My cameraman was led away. My producer, Jo Kent, started filming me with a small camera when a plain clothes policeman batted it out of her hand. He and several other officers started shoving us around. Three bulky men grabbed my petite female producer. Three more nabbed me, holding my arms tight. We offered to walk on our own but the officers pushed, at times lifting us off the ground, before dragging us to a bank branch where police were already detaining other journalists.

The officers took down details of our press credentials and told us we needed a permit to conduct interviews in the area. However, there were no protesters and we weren't interviewing anyone. As far as we understood the regulations, we weren't breaking any laws. In an especially bizarre statement, the police denied that anybody had forced us into the bank, claiming that we showed up on our own volition. They returned our camera and we discovered they had deleted our video even though it was just me on the street discussing how there were no protests. When we insisted on being released, one officer said we were free to go at any time - just not until they said so.

After half an hour, we were released. We walked off the premises and I tried to explain on camera what had happened to us. We were again immediately surrounded by police who attempted to put us into an unidentified car which they said was an official vehicle. One of the men took my press card and refused to give it back until I wrested it out of his hands. I demanded that he show me his ID badge and he did eventually - while covering his name with his thumb.

We found out many other journalists were treated the same and, in some cases, much worse. A former colleague and friend of mine Steve Engle of Bloomberg News had been dragged into an alley by several police who beat him up. He ended up at the hospital.

What makes China's treatment of the international press so bewildering is that there had been no protests for us to cover here. Not that the government should be treating foreign journalists this way under any circumstances, but the authorities have been lashing out with such severity in an attempt to intimidate us even though we have nothing to report. All we would have done this weekend was shown that the streets of Beijing were perfectly peaceful and gone home.

My own experience and those of my colleagues show how incredibly terrified and paranoid the Chinese authorities are of any anti-government movement forming in China.