CHINA'S secret police have stepped up their harassment of Beijing-based foreign correspondents in an apparent effort to cut them off from links with Chinese sources. The government has further discouraged contacts by issuing an internal circular that severely restricts who can approve foreign reporters' interviews with Chinese and what topics are acceptable for coverage.
The actions seem to be part of a broad tightening of security with the approaching anniversaries of last year's mass democracy movement - and its suppression by the Chinese Army last June.
Chinese authorities may also be worried over a possible outbreak of unrest during the annual session of the National People's Congress, China's nominal parliament, which is scheduled to begin March 20.
``The bureaucracy has gotten in gear,'' said a correspondent for a British publication. ``They are trying to block the leaks in the dam.''
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Beijing (FCCB) on Wednesday strongly objected to the ``attempts to intimidate and obstruct'' foreign journalists' contacts with Chinese.
``There is no other place in the world today where foreign correspondents are subject to such intense, systematic harassment as we are in China,'' FCCB President James Munson wrote in a letter to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
The United States Embassy in Beijing has raised the complaints of American reporters with the Foreign Ministry.
Surveillance of foreign journalists has increased markedly in the last two weeks, despite the lifting of martial law in January, according to Beijing-based reporters.
Lately, Chinese who have visited the homes of foreign journalists have been interrogated by security agents or warned by their employers to cease such contacts immediately.
Three Chinese citizens were questioned for nearly an hour by police after leaving the residence of a European correspondent last week.
Plainclothes security police often shadow some foreign journalists around Beijing, sitting near them in restaurants to overhear their conversations with Chinese and photographing them using cameras hidden in shoulder bags and attach'e cases.
Correspondents for the Monitor have been followed while meeting Chinese friends, taking their baby on walks in a nearby park, and on other occasions.
``They simply want to instill fear into those we feel are reliable sources,'' said a North American reporter.
The telephones of foreign journalists are tapped. Recently, some sensitive conversations have been interfered with or cut off completely. Incoming and outgoing mail is opened and sometimes delayed for days or weeks.
At the same time, China's State Council in January issued an internal regulation requiring high-level - one source said ministerial-level - approval for Chinese to accept interviews with foreign correspondents, according to several Chinese sources.
Under the new rules, distributed last month to government organizations, newspapers, and other workplaces around Beijing, telephone interviews are prohibited, one source said.
The rules have made it difficult for foreign journalists to obtain interviews with Chinese, even for stories on topics that do not reflect unfavorably on the government.
The ``spirit'' of the regulations is to prevent foreign reporters from gathering information on ``the dark side'' of China's society, two Chinese officials told the Monitor.
Chinese journalists say they are also under intense pressure to refrain from any reporting that could be construed as critical. Communist Party Politburo member Li Ruihuan has instructed the official news media to carry out ``positive propaganda.''
``Compared with the `bright side,' the `dark side' is always a minor aspect of our social life,'' the party's People's Daily said in an article on the Chinese media last month.