BEIJING'S determination to ensure a protest-free Olympics was clear yesterday as authorities obstructed foreign media covering the removal of hundreds of petitioners who were lawfully in the capital to complain about corrupt officials, land grabs, pollution and other grievances.
At the same time, two explosions on public buses in Kunming, the capital of the south-west Yunnan province, left two dead and 14 injured during the morning rush hour. On Saturday police shot dead two protesters during a riot with 400 rubber farmers in another part of Yunnan.
Authorities are worried the civil conflicts will cause China to lose face when it fulfils its dream of hosting the Olympics next month.
The steps the Government will take to maintain at least the appearance of public order was evident in Beijing yesterday.
Provincial people with grievances have traditionally headed to Beijing to set out their claims at petition offices. But one of the city's busiest petition offices, in Beijing south, was almost deserted. The Herald arrived shortly after 11am to see two busloads of people being driven away.
One witness, an official from Hunan province who had been sent to Beijing to identify and bring back Hunan petitioners, said proudly that six buses of petitioners had already been taken away that morning.
As the Herald tried to interview the few dozen diehard petitioners remaining outside on the footpath, plainclothes and uniformed police intervened, in flagrant breach of China's Olympic pledge to allow foreign reporters to work freely.
The Fairfax photographer John Donegan, who arrived at the petition office separately in a taxi, was temporarily detained by two policemen as he got out of the car. Another officer was filming him while the police, who took his passport, were interrogating him. His Olympic accreditation was ignored by the authorities, who took his details.
Last Wednesday, when the Herald visited this petition office, near the rebuilt ancient city gate of Yongdingmen, to check on a rumour that such offices were being shut as part of the pre-Olympic security crackdown, there were almost 300 people queuing and another couple of hundred relatives and friends waiting on the sidelines.
The Herald was able to discreetly talk to petitioners as half a dozen young policemen maintained order, patiently copping abuse from angry petitioners about delays.
Yesterday this was impossible. A burly man in a striped T-shirt forced the Herald's Chinese translator into the security guard's office and tried to close the door when we began asking questions. The man, who refused to identify himself, said we should look at the many Olympic venues rather than be here.
"These are conflicts amongst the Chinese people … we can solve them ourselves, you shouldn't talk to foreigners," the man told our Chinese assistant.
When we refused to allow him to be alone with our assistant, he was forced eventually to let us go, but continued to intimidate petitioners who tried to talk to us.
On the road a woman petitioner said the crackdown had begun that morning. The man in the striped shirt, who had followed us out, and other plainclothes security officers intervened again.
Two uniformed local police officers who later asked us politely for our identification confirmed it was lawful for foreign journalists to be there.