By Adrienne Mong, NBC News producer
What a difference a couple of months can make.
As people returned to work following the end of the Chinese New Year holidays in February, there was a palpable sense of anticipation for the Olympic Summer Games. The intense winter cold snap lasted longer than the holidays, but there was a spring in everyone's step.
Friends working in professions as diverse as business and the arts spoke of an accelerated rate of activity; people seemed to be jetting back and forth from the United States and Europe in a frenzy to meet deadlines on special projects before the Games begin August 8.
|Chinese youths protest outside a Carrefour supermarket, a French owned company, in Qingdao in east China's Shandong province on April 18.|
My e-mail inbox was getting clogged on a more regular basis with press conference notices from the Beijing Olympic authorities, BOCOG. And I was fielding dozens of requests from far-flung friends to crash on the floor of my apartment in the months leading up to August.
It was as though Beijing had become the center of the world and everyone wanted to be here.
And then, the protests and violence in Tibet and surrounding regions happened.
In response to international condemnation of its policies in Tibet, the Chinese government has taken a hard line against critics. At the same time, Chinese people have become more upset over what they perceive as Western media bias against their nation.
Targeting the Western press
CNN has been the target of intense criticism and threats for allegedly biased coverage of the protests in Tibet, and particularly for remarks made by commentator Jack Cafferty, who referred to China's leaders – not the Chinese people – as a "bunch of goons and thugs."
CNN has apologized for any offence, and Cafferty clarified on air earlier in the week that his comments were referring specifically to the government and "not to Chinese people or to Chinese-Americans."
But even before this latest incident, we had heard from CNN staff that non-essential personnel had been asked to stay away from the CNN Beijing office because threats from angry Chinese activists were growing serious.
A Chinese friend who once worked for CNN learned Friday that his name and personal information had been posted on one of the more virulent anti-Western media Web sites in China. He said he was shocked by the coarse language people used to accuse him of being a traitor.
Not just CNN
An acquaintance at a top-selling U.S. newsmagazine described an incident in which someone rang the doorbell of her home and tried to set off a fire extinguisher in her face when she opened the front door.
NBC News hasn't been subject to the same level of harassment as some other media outlets, but for several weeks now in the late evenings our bureau has received prank phone calls from Chinese people asking whether we are CNN or just randomly cursing all Western media.
The anxiety isn't confined to journalists.
Chinese furious over how the Olympic torch was received in Paris on April 7 are planning a demonstration Saturday in front of a branch of the French supermarket, Carrefour. And a more widespread boycott of all Carrefour branches planned for May 1 is gathering steam.
A friend with French relatives coming to visit Beijing next week is anxious about how they might be treated and is reluctant to leave them on their own to explore the capital.
In a way, however, this French family is lucky they can even be here.
Crackdown on visitors and residents
Chinese authorities are cracking down on entry visas. Reports are circulating among U.S. businessmen that many companies are starting to suffer from a restriction on business visas for legitimate employees.
Every foreign freelancer or independent contractor I know here is looking for a sponsor, as they've been warned their current – and legitimate – business visas are not likely to be renewed. Even a college student whom NBC agreed to take on for the summer has had to cut short his internship, because he won't be allowed to extend his student visa beyond August 1; extending a visa was previously a common practice.
One of our local staffers told me that five security people showed up at her home at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, pounding on her front door and demanding to see her local residency permit. They were rude, she said, and they examined parts of her apartment without her consent.
"They wanted to know if I was the only one living here," she said.
Of course, some of this might appear trivial compared to the domestic political housecleaning taking place across China. Many dissidents or potential noisemakers have been rounded up since December.
In the wake of these incidents, one can only wonder if this is the image China's government and its people really want to present to the outside world as they prepare to host an Olympics bearing the banner "One World One Dream."