WHEN a Beijing taxi driver picked up Maria Salla, an Italian studying at the People's University in Beijing last month, he asked her if she wanted to 'have some fun' with him and then drove her into a dark alley. When he tried to molest her, she screamed and then threatened to report him. 'He then drove me back but when we got back to the campus, he tried to fondle me again. I jabbed my fingers into his eyes, grabbed the car keys and got out,' she said. But the driver had another key and drove off before she could record his number. Beijing, once regarded as one of the safest cities in the world, especially for women, has been changing for the worse. 'Since January 1995 we have noticed that crime against foreigners is on the increase,' said a spokesman at the British Embassy in Beijing. This year the foreign community in Beijing was shocked by the still unexplained murder of a senior Italian trade official. He was found dead in his room at the luxury Jingguang Hotel. An autopsy revealed that he had suffered multiple blows to the head. Three months after the Beijing Public Security office confirmed that they were looking for a murder suspect, the trail has gone dead. 'We checked with them two weeks ago and they said there were no new leads but the investigations had been widened to include other large cities such as Shanghai,' a spokeswoman at the Italian Embassy said. Police suspect the motive was murder and claim to have found a knife and a handgun in the victim's room. Many Western countries have not changed their view that Beijing - and China in general - ranks among the least dangerous places in the world. 'We still consider Beijing one of the safest destinations for Irish citizens although petty crime is on the increase,' said Kylie O'Sullivan at the Irish embassy. Much the same view is taken by American consular officials. 'The official line has not changed, we have not noticed a rise in serious crimes against foreigners,' Robert Laing, spokesman at the American embassy said. The Beijing Public Security Bureau says it does not keep statistics on crimes against foreigners. However, there is a growing belief in the foreign community that the growing lawlessness in China is now affecting Westerners and overseas Chinese. British consular officials believe that some crimes reflect a rising feeling of xenophobia. Much speculation centres around the still unexplained knife attack on a German tourist who was walking around Tiananmen Square on China's national day. The fact that an attack like that could take place in the most closely-guarded area in Beijing has underlined the new dangers in China. Although police described the assailant as a mad woman, the Germany embassy has still not been told details of the case. No charges have been brought against anyone although a woman in Tianjin is said to have been held for questioning. Foreign students and diplomats complain, too, of a shift in attitudes to Western women. 'It used to be that a woman could go out alone in Beijing and be perfectly safe. Chinese men would never harass a foreign woman; now even the guards outside the embassies have made lewd suggestions as I walked by at night,' said a Western diplomat in her 30s. 'I think it is because of all the Western pornography which has come into China and affected attitudes,' she said. The many stories of female students in Beijing being attacked at night have made many more cautious about taking taxis at that time. One girl was recently attacked by an assailant who tried to strangle her outside a bar near Beijing University last month. 'It has got noticeably worse during the last two years,' said a Russian student who has been in Beijing for four years. 'Western girls behave here as they do in their own countries; they act in a very free manner which gives Chinese the wrong idea.' Reports of overseas Chinese being kidnapped or held ransom are also on the increase but many of these cases seem connected with business deals which have gone wrong or attempts to lure rich businessmen into honey traps. Prostitutes are used to seduce a businessman who is then blackmailed. In the past, Beijing's criminal fraternity tended to avoid foreigners in the belief that such crimes were more likely to be reported and the penalties for being caught were generally harsher. However, the rapidly growing numbers of well-off foreigners living in China have provided more potential targets and the increasing mobility of Chinese makes the culprits harder to catch. Although officially the growing crime wave in Beijing and other major cities is not highlighted by the media, it is evident by a number of measures introduced this year. For the first time, the authorities have established mobile police patrols who cruise the streets. The capital's 80,000 taxi drivers have all been instructed this year to install metal grills separating the front seats from the back, and plastic panels dividing the two places at the front. This is not just to protect the passengers but the drivers too. Many have been murdered by passengers just for the cash they carry and, more recently, for their vehicles. Some Beijingers blame the crime wave on the 'waidi ren', the outsiders, especially guest workers from the countryside. Yet others criticise the unwillingness of the police to change their function from safeguarding the state to protecting individual citizens. As in the former Soviet Union, it is becoming increasingly popular for those who can afford it to hire bodyguards, night-watchmen and other security personnel. This winter the police are reported to have launched a new campaign to crack down on crime, in particular organised crime, armed robbery, and drug trafficking. Observers say this reflects a change from random, opportunistic crime of the sort carried out by pickpockets, bicycle thieves and the like. Now there is a professional mafia equipped with their own firearms and fast cars who can co-opt the help of local police.