BEIJING, March 7, 2011 -- It started out as a story about anonymous online calls for a "Jasmine Revolution," calls that, it must be noted, were not met with any notable enthusiasm from Chinese people.
But it has turned into the story of China's nervousness about recent upheaval in the Middle East and north Africa and how this skittishness has changed the working landscape for international reporters in China.
In the week since last Sunday's abortive protests, in which about a dozen journalists were detained or manhandled and one reporter was beaten quite severely, China has made it clear that journalists must familiarize themselves with the "new rules" for reporting here, by putting in official requests with the government to carry out interviews in Beijing.
This seems to constitute a repealing of Premier Wen Jiabao's decree in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics that journalists can operate freely without seeking specific government permission.
China's foreign ministry has denied that any journalists were beaten up by Chinese police, saying, "there is no such issue as Chinese police officers beating foreign journalists."
Our cameraman, a Filipino national, was visited Friday night by police who demanded to see his passport and press card and reminded him of the importance of abiding by Chinese law.
Two policemen banged on my door Saturday afternoon bearing a similar message. They claimed that they needed to talk to me about my registration and asked for my passport and residency.
Although they did not mention my reporting, their parting words were unambiguous: "Make sure you understand Chinese law." Dozens of other journalists have faced similar visits and worse.
Journalists in China Incredulous
At least four journalists have complained that their Gmail accounts have been hacked into, according to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China.
ABC News went to a shopping area Sunday called Xidan, one of the locations for the "stroll" called for by Jasmine Revolution organizers.
It was the third week of calls for protests, and there were no visible protestors that we saw, but hundreds of uniformed police and plainclothes officers, watching our every move and talking into radio pieces.
Within five minutes of walking down the street, I was clocked by one such plainclothes officer who was observing me from a pedestrian overpass. I was surrounded by police, demanding to see my passport.
I was not carrying a camera and they had no way of knowing I was a journalist from looking at me; it was clear that I was stopped simply because I was white.
They took my passport and press card and wrote down all my details.
Two men carrying video cameras taped the entire thing, moving around me in circles. They were perfectly polite but told me clearly, "you better good bye." When we tried to take another route, we were stopped by two other groups of police.
Most journalists here feel exasperated by the situation and are incredulous that China's security arm is turning what would likely be a non-story (the lackluster turn-out for a "Jasmine Revolution") into such a scandal.
While the tactics being used at this stage are mostly thuggish -- threats, intimidation and a little bit of roughing up -- many are wondering whether the government will follow through on its threat to strip disobedient journalists of their credentials and residency.