As Olympics near, jittery China clamps down on foreigners, concerts

BEIJING — Nervous that troublemakers may slip across the border before the Olympic Games, China is making it harder for foreigners to obtain entry visas and halting public gatherings where embarrassing protests over Tibet might take place.

Authorities suspended a May 1-4 rock festival that's the biggest annual outdoor music event in China, saying the event could be dangerous, an organizer said Thursday.

Other commercial events also have been canceled in recent weeks, including a Celine Dion concert in Beijing and a pillow fight aimed at drawing shoppers to a mall.

Chinese authorities are in no mood for such parties. Unrest in Tibetan regions last month marked the biggest wave of ethnic disturbances in nearly two decades, sparking protests worldwide as the Olympic torch made its way around the globe this month.

On Thursday, the torch passed through Canberra, Australia, where police made seven arrests, and then it headed to Nagano, Japan, under heavy security.

Many Chinese watched angrily as protests bedeviled the torch relay earlier this month in England and France, seeing them as an attempt to humiliate China. With government approval, some Chinese have launched protests outside Chinese branches of French retailer Carrefour, voicing often-irate anti-Western sentiments.

Tightened entry rules into China began a week or so ago and are to last through the Aug. 8-24 Summer Games. The new visa requirements have distressed foreign business owners and executives with operations on the mainland.

Chinese consulates abroad commonly granted multiple-entry visas but now are limiting most applicants to single- or double-entry visas, and only if travelers have air tickets and hotel bookings in hand.

"Business people need stability to operate, and the Hong Kong business community has been thrown into great turmoil as a result of the new and largely misunderstood visa policies," said Richard R. Vuylsteke, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, in a letter to a Chinese Foreign Ministry official. The letter was posted on the chamber's Web site.

A scholar in Hong Kong said the visa restrictions and the sudden cancellations of public events reveal China's nervousness in the run-up to the Olympic Games.

"The whole idea is, 'Make sure that nothing goes wrong.' This is a paramount consideration, and they are willing to pay the price," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong.

The founder and organizer of the Midi Festival, the suspended four-day rock event, said he'd invited 30 bands from the United States, Europe and Australia to perform along with 100 Chinese bands on six different stages at the Beijing festival.

"I think it's good for the Olympics and for China, but the government doesn't think so," said Zhang Fan, the organizer. "They think it's dangerous."

He said officials were particularly unhappy that Bjork, the Icelandic singer, shouted "Tibet! Tibet!" at the end of a concert in Shanghai on March 2.

Asked the reasons for the Midi cancellation, Zhang said: "First, it's Bjork. Second, it's Tibet, and third, it's the torch. Fourth, it's that a lot of Chinese people are angry."

The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, declared that authorities would guarantee "the physical safety and legal rights" of foreigners coming to China, and it rejected reports that a throng of protesters had tried to harm an American volunteer teacher in Hunan province.

James Galvin, a 22-year-old Boston College graduate, was taunted outside a Carrefour market in Zhuzhou Sunday night. He later sent an email to an English-language Web site in Shanghai saying that while chanting protesters had surrounded his taxi, they didn't break any windows or harm him.

"I was not in fact attacked by a mob," Galvin told the Web site. He couldn't be reached directly.

Steven Parker, the China field director for WorldTeach, a Cambridge, Mass.-based program that sends volunteers around the world, warned volunteers in a letter Monday to stay away from protests, saying a mob had tried to smash the windows of Galvin's taxi and tip it over, making him feel "extremely unsafe."

A McClatchy story reported Parker's initial version. The Foreign Ministry sent a fax to the Beijing bureau saying his version "misrepresented" what Galvin later clarified had occurred.

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