China mounts a massive security operation aimed at preventing political protests
By Peter Goodspeed
Chinese paramilitary police march in Tiananmen Square in Beijing yesterday. China's leaders are not about to let anyone spoil the country's coming-out party. (Claro Cortes Iv, Reuters)
It may be the world's premier sporting extravaganza, but China is turning the Beijing Olympics into the biggest security operation in history.
There will be 100,000 police on duty in Beijing during the 17 days of the Games, backed by 100,000 members of China's armed forces, 300 specialists in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, fleets of airplanes, helicopters and warships and 600,000 "security volunteers," including retirees, students and neighbourhood committees.
Surface-to-air missile launchers are already positioned around prime Olympic sites, such as the "Bird's Nest" stadium and the "Water Cube" aquatics centre. Unmanned security drones will patrol the skies above Olympic sailors near the naval port of Qingdao.
Access to Olympic Games sites will be monitored with security checks, X-ray machines, metal detectors, full-body scanners, electronic passes and biometric keys, such as fingerprint and iris scanning.
The Chinese capital itself is already plugged into a vast new computerized surveillance network. This uses hidden microphones to eavesdrop on conversations in a dozen different languages, while scanning crowds with face-recognition software hooked up to more than 300,000 surveillance cameras so powerful they can detect individual beads of sweat on a person's forehead.
Last year, the Security Industry Association, an international trade association based in Alexandria, Va., estimated China spent US$6.5-billion on sophisticated surveillance equipment before the Olympics. That dwarfs the US$1.3-billion Athens allocated on security when it hosted the 2004 Games after the 2003 Iraq war and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Billions of dollars have also been lavished on giving Beijing a massive makeover to showcase China's culture and achievements.
"After a hiatus of 150 or more years, China is preparing once again to play on the world stage a role proportional to the importance of its size, history and geography," said Frank Ching, a Hong Kong-based journalist and columnist.
"The Games are now seen as the 'coming out' of China, serving as a rebirth, as it were, after generations of foreign dominance and domestic oppression."
And China's authoritarian leaders are not about to let anyone spoil their party.
When they won the right to host the 2008 Olympics seven years ago, Chinese officials promised to improve human rights, develop a more open society and clean up the environment. They also vowed to grant foreign reporters covering the Games free and unfettered access to every nook and cranny of the country.
But international human rights groups are almost unanimous in claiming human rights conditions have deteriorated as a direct result of the Olympics.
They fear the new security system will be used against ordinary Chinese for years to come.
China has brought the full weight of one of the world's most oppressive governments into play to control every last detail.
Under the slogan "Peaceful Beijing," security forces have purged the capital of migrant labourers, street vendors, prostitutes and beggars.
For months, police have arrested, detained and threatened prominent dissidents. They have stepped up telephone ande-mail surveillance, purged the Internet of offensive Web sites and blogs, and ordered local authorities to prevent public disturbances.
Most known dissidents in Beijing have been warned to behave or put under virtual house arrest, while those living outside the capital have been told to keep away until the fall.
Visa regulations have been tightened to restrict and screen foreigners in Beijing during the Olympics.
Multiple-entry visas have been eliminated and all long-term foreign residents have been forced to return to their home countries to renew visas. Dozens of foreigners with suspected links to activist groups have simply been told to leave.
The impact of the visa changes is so severe many hotels and restaurants in Beijing are reporting their worst business in years. Instead of cashing in on Olympic gold, China's tourist industry has found the country's security blanket is threatening to stifle any serious partying.
Even the Beijing Olympic Committee's official Web site posted a welcome message to tourists that included 57 tips on how to behave.
The edict covered everything from public drunkenness to dangerous political statements. It also warned, "Any illegal gatherings, parades, and protests and refusal to comply are subject to administrative punishment or criminal prosecution." The same list tells Olympic tourists not to bring items "that are harmful to China's politics, economics, culture and morals."
It also threatens criminal prosecution against anyone "who burns, defaces
insults or tramps on the national flag or insignia."
Foreigners who stay with Chinese residents during the Olympics are warned they must register at local police stations within 24 hours of their arrival.
Nothing is being left to chance.
Chinese sports fans have even been provided with an officially approved Olympic cheer, created by the Chinese Communist Party's Office of Spiritual Civilization, Development & Guidance. It combines clapping, raised thumbs, punching a fist in the air and shouting "Go Olympics, Go China."
In 2001, when China was competing with Toronto for the right to host the 2008 Games, people debated whether the Olympics might serve as a catalyst for change in China. Now they worry about how much damage the Games may cause.
"The preparation for the Olympics has actually had a negative impact on some areas of human rights," said Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International.
"Official persecution of human rights activists continues, particularly those making connections between ongoing human rights violations and China's hosting of the Olympics."
"When the Olympic Games begin in Beijing, China will show the world its physical strength, but also its moral poverty," said Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong media and clothing tycoon who publishes the Apple Daily newspaper.
"This is unavoidable because the Olympics are more than just a sporting event; they are an expression of the human drive for greatness in all pursuits."
Terrorist attacks top the list of official security concerns. Beijing officials claim Tibetan forces allied with the exiled Dalai Lama and Islamic separatists from the Xinjiang region are scheming with outside activists to crash the Olympic party.
"The current international and domestic situation is full of complications," Yang Huanning, China's vice-minister of public security, told police this week.
"As the Beijing Olympic Games draw near, a range of anti-China forces and hostile forces are striving by any means and redoubling efforts to engage in troublemaking and sabotage."
Chinese officials say they have already foiled plans by five terrorism groups to target the Olympics. On Wednesday, police in Xinjiang shot and killed five people who they said were ready to wage "holy war" on China's Han ethnic majority.
Still, the massive security preparations in Beijing are aimed more at preventing political demonstrations than terrorist attacks.
In addition to wholesale detentions and systematic surveillance, security officials have tightened controls on the use of Tiananmen Square, the symbolic centre of China's capital.
Foreign journalists who were initially promised unlimited access during the Olympics have been told they cannot stage live newscasts from Tiananmen unless they are official rights-holding broadcasters who paid millions of dollars to cover the Games.
Even then, official broadcasters are limited to using the square from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Officials apparently fear live international newscasts may attract protesters to the site of the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989.
That fear surfaced again on Thursday when China announced all foreign visitors will be banned from the campus of Beijing University during the Olympics. The university was a hotbed of student activism during the 1989 Tiananmen protests.