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For China's Olympic guests, a not-so-warm welcome

Beijingers say added security rules could stifle the Games.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 25, 2008

Ready: Cheery volunteers will greet Olympic visitors, as will a host of new restrictions.

Andy Wong/AP

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"Beijing Welcomes the World."

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That slogan is everywhere nowadays in the Chinese capital. But as the Games draw near, the eight-tooth smile that Olympic hostesses have been taught is beginning to look a little strained.

Fearful of terrorist attacks and of embarrassing protests, the authorities are draping a security blanket over Beijing so thick that many residents fear it will stifle the Games.

"They are not taking any chances, whatever the impact on ordinary people, either local or foreign," says Gilbert van Kerckhove, a longtime Beijing resident who is advising the city on Olympic issues. "They are totally paranoid; there is no other word for it."

In preparation for the Olympics, long billed as China's coming-out party, the government has tightened visa rules to restrict the number of incoming foreigners, snarled international broadcasters' plans to televise the Games, cleared almost all Beijing's itinerant vendors off the streets, and closed down one of the city's most popular English-language magazines, among other steps apparently designed to ensure control of the event.

The gathering mood here has caught the attention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which organizes the games.

"We have asked the Chinese to try to find the right balance between security and operations, and I have confidence that they will do so," said the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, earlier this month.

'More serious' visa regulations

Attracting the most attention among Beijing's 250,000 foreign residents are the "more strict and more serious" visa regulations that a foreign ministry spokesman explained recently are aimed at ensuring Olympic security.

They have made it much harder for foreigners to get into China and to stay here once they have arrived.

The effects of rules introduced last month – eliminating multiple-entry visas, requiring applicants for visa renewals to return to their home country, and demanding proof of professional qualifications – have been felt most acutely among the hordes of young people who have been attracted to Beijing as an internationally fashionable place to live and who either study here or make a living as best they can.

Likely participants in the sort of protests the government is anxious to curb, they are not the sort of people the authorities want in Beijing in August. But the rules have also hampered international businessmen, prompting official complaints from foreign chambers of commerce.

"Business opportunities are being missed," the European Chamber of Commerce warned the Chinese government in a letter, since the rules "impose dramatic costs in terms of both time and money."

"Many European companies from multinationals to small- to medium-sized are experiencing issues with obtaining business visas," says the chamber's secretary general, Michael O'Sullivan, "and we have not noted any further changes in the situation" since the letter was sent.

Television broadcasters, meanwhile, are still battling the Chinese security bureaucracy six weeks before the Games' opening ceremony, seeking assurances they will be able to broadcast live from such iconic locations as Tiananmen Square and elsewhere.

It is still unclear, they say, whether Beijing will give way. "Unless the authorities relax and are a little more free with the media, they may well compromise coverage of the games," warns John Barton, director of sports at the Asian Broadcasting Union.

Ordinary Beijingers are more affected by minor irritants: new restrictions on what they can send in the mail (no electronics, no powder, no soap), a ban on the sale of fireworks, plans for airport-style security on the subway during the Games, and the disappearance of street vendors selling snacks and other items, most of whom come from out of town.

"The city police drove them all out," says one fruit-seller who has so far evaded arrest of his erstwhile competitors on a street near the Foreign Studies University. "It's because of the Olympics. They've all gone home ... and they can't come back until after the Oct. 1 holiday."