China to clear out students, refugees before Olympics

Beijing  -  China plans to order all foreign students to leave the country before the Olympic Games in August, strictly regulate the issuing of business and tourist visas, and deport refugees, sources said on Thursday.

"Even if you have to continue your studies in September, you need to leave Beijing in July and August," a spokeswoman for Beijing University told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

The university is one of China's most prestigious colleges and enrolls hundreds of foreign students annually on Chinese-language and other courses.

The spokeswoman said the two-month gap applies to all universities in Beijing and was ordered by "higher authorities" because of the Olympics.

One Western education official estimated that at least 10,000 students would be affected by the order.

The official China Daily said about 190,000 foreign students from 188 nations attended courses in China last year.

The Beijing University spokeswoman said all short-term summer courses for foreigners had been cancelled this year.

China has already severely restricted the issuing of short-term and multi-entry business visas, prompting complaints from business groups and diplomats.

Some Beijing-based businesses said they may be unable to fill vacancies until after the Olympics because of the new restrictions.

"You can be sure that all countries affected will raise the issue with the Chinese side very intensively," one informed source said of the restrictions on business visas.

"It clearly has to do with the Olympics," the source said.

China appears to have acted partly in response to recent reports that police uncovered at least two terrorist plots targeting the Olympics, the source said, adding that other nations had taken similar security measures in the past.

China's foreign ministry on Thursday defended the restrictions and said visas were issued "according to law."

"I believe it will have no influence on normal business activities in China," ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said of the change in visa policy.

"Compared with the visa practice in other countries, in China it is relatively convenient," Jiang said.

Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, on Thursday criticized China for limiting business visas issued to foreigners in Hong Kong, saying the new rules were severely affecting business people.

Wuttke called the restrictions "truly annoying" and charged that the new visa rules were unclear and have never been published.

The new measures, which an informed source quoted foreign ministry officials as saying were temporary, require non-permanent Hong Kong residents to apply for visas in their home countries.

"If you don't reside or work in Hong Kong permanently, you are required to apply for a Chinese visa from the embassy ... in your resident country," said a copy of the new visa regulation posted on a government website.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was concerned about the deportation of vulnerable refugees from China before the Olympics.

In a statement posted on its website, UNHCR highlighted the case of a 17-year-old unaccompanied refugee who was returned to his country of origin after being taken from his home in Beijing on April 3.

"The news of this and other deportations has created considerable anxiety among the refugees in Beijing, who have told us they are feeling very intimidated by these activities," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said in the statement.

"From a security perspective UNHCR appreciates that particular vigilance is needed during this period of preparation for the 2008 Olympics," Pagonis said.

"We are ready to discuss acceptable arrangements which are sensitive to these concerns but which preserve necessary conditions of protection for persons in need," she said.

She said some of the deportations among the 180 refugees recorded by UNHCR in China "may well constitute a violation" of the 1951 Refugee Convention. (dpa)