By Geoff Dyer in Beijing
Only a few months ago the Chinese government was aiming to put on “the best Olympics Games in history”. Now officials are talking in more cautious terms about a “safe Olympics”.
After a series of explosions and other potential security threats, Beijing is mounting one of the biggest-ever security operations for the games. The measures include surface-to-air missiles at the main stadiums and the deployment of 100,000 troops to deal with potential terrorist attacks. “Safety is our top concern,” said Xi Jinping, the vice-president, last week.
With dozens of heads of state due to come to the opening ceremony, no government would be taking chances. Yet some analysts believe Beijing is using the security threat as cover for a clampdown on a broad range of other groups.
In the months preceding the games there have been almost weekly incidents that have created a mood of unease among many Chinese.
Two people were killed last week by explosions on buses in the south-western city of Kunming, while three people died after an explosion on a bus in Shanghai in May. At the weekend a group opposed to Chinese rule in the mainly Muslim far western region of Xinjiang claimed responsibility for both incidents, using a video of hooded men carrying machine guns to say they were part of a campaign against the Olympics. Chinese officials dismissed the report.
Police in Shanghai announced last week that they had broken up an international terrorist cell that had plotted attacks during the games without providing any information about who the alleged terrorists were.
Security experts from both China and overseas say the country does face a genuine terrorism threat. The most prominent risk is believed to be the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which was listed as a terrorist group by the United Nations in 2002.
Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert based in Singapore, said that one branch of ETIM had been based for a number of years in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where it had received “ideology, training and financing from al-Qaeda”. Its numbers had been reduced from several thousand to a few hundred as the result of Pakistani military operations, he said.
Li Wei, a terrorism expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said that ETIM was the biggest problem but that China faced four other terrorist threats, listed as: “Extremists and activists among the Tibetan independence groups; Falun Gong evil cult organisations; common citizens who are discontented; and international terrorist forces.”
In spite of the flurry of recent incidents, Beijing has been accused of exaggerating risks, in part by lumping together ETIM with other groups, some of which have no history of violence.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, says that any security threat to the Olympics should be taken seriously. However, he said, China should provide concrete evidence to back up the many allegations of terrorist plots and should stop conflating terrorism with other types of crime or political activity. “China is not acting as a responsible Olympics host when it blurs so much of the actual terrorism risk,” he said.
As part of the pre-Olympics security sweep, political activists have been harassed or arrested, the leaders of underground churches forced to leave town and ordinary petitioners blocked from travelling to Beijing to lobby the central government. Already strict security has been stepped up in Xinjiang, part of a hardline political strategy that some observers believe could actually foster violence.
“China has left little space to publicly express different viewpoints,” said Mr Gunaratna. “That may have driven a small segment of Uighurs towards supporting violence,” he said, referring to the Muslim ethnic group that makes up the largest segment of Xinjiang’s population.
Moreover, security experts question whether ETIM and other militant Uighur groups have the capability to launch attacks anywhere outside Xinjiang. Andrew Gilholm, an analyst at consultancy Control Risks in Shanghai, said: “There is a big information vacuum that makes judgments quite speculative. But we do not think there is an increased likelihood of something happening in Beijing because of the Olympics.” China remained a “low-risk country for terrorism”, he said.
INCIDENTS IN 2008
March 9 A flight from Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, is forced to make an emergency landing after a passenger is reportedly discovered to be carrying flammable liquids
May 5 -An explosion on a bus in Shanghai kills three people. It is reported as an accident
May 17 - In Wenzhou 17 people are killed when a man drives a tractor carrying explosives into other vehicles. Reports suggest it is a revenge attack related to gambling losses
July 21 - Bombs on two buses in Kunming kill two people. Police say the bombs are not related to the Olympics
Source: Control Risks, newspaper reports