From missile batteries around the stadium to neighborhood watches, from SWAT teams to bar closures, from random ID checks to a visa clampdown, Beijing’s panoply of security measures outstrips anything ever mounted for the Olympics.
China’s efforts reflect more than the government’s desire to protect athletes and spectators from terrorists or unruly protesters. The unprecedented drive for control also illustrates how much more broadly China views security than most other countries.
Beijing views “anything that might ‘harm China’s reputation’ as a security threat” says Drew Thompson, a China analyst at the Nixon Center in Washington. “That extends to any group seeking to push an agenda that is not aligned with the government’s propaganda.”
This means the authorities are determined to block unauthorized demonstrations and public criticism of official policy, which in their view might undermine security, as well as terrorist attacks during the Games.
In an editorial last week, the People’s Armed Police News, the official organ of one of the key forces responsible for Olympic security, placed the threats side by side.
“Western anti-China forces are striving for opportunities to disrupt the games,” it said. “International terrorist forces are itching to strike ... and hostile domestic forces’s disruption and sabotage activities against the Games are steadily unfolding.”
The effects of this approach are myriad: A visa clampdown has weeded out foreign visitors and residents who might join in demonstrations. New regulations have closed dozens of Beijing bars and clubs where large numbers of young people might gather. The city’s university campuses are off-limits to all non-residents. University students without Beijing residence permits have been sent home. Dissidents have been detained or put under house arrest. Foreign journalists’ Internet access is being censored.
In a similar vein, policemen who were embarrassed last Friday by an unruly crowd waiting to buy Olympic tickets assaulted TV crews filming the scuffles and broke their equipment.
“There will definitely be an expectations gap between what the Chinese government is planning and what international participants expect,” says Mr. Thompson. “There are very different norms in terms of personal freedoms.”
Dealing with terrorist threats
The Chinese authorities are also worried about more standard security threats to the Olympics. Officials say police have foiled several terrorist plots in recent months by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group demanding independence for Xinjiang, a region in China’s far west populated mainly by the Muslim Uighur minority.
Fears heightened last week with the appearance of a video issued by a group widely thought to be linked to ETIM threatening to “target the most critical points related to the Olympics ... using tactics that have never been employed.”
In the video, featuring two masked gunmen, a spokesman claimed responsibility for two bus bombings that struck the southwestern city of Kunming ten days ago, killing two people, and for two other bus bombs in Shanghai last May. Chinese police, however, said none of the explosions were linked to terrorism.
ETIM “is the preeminent threat to the Olympics, but because of the security measures it would be very difficult for them to attack Olympic venues,” says Rohan Guneratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
Some critics of the Chinese government say Beijing has exaggerated the threat of Uighur terrorism. “They have inflated and distorted terrorist claims in order to justify a broader repressive campaign in Xinjiang,” argues Nicolas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
The US State Department, however, in a confidential report by its Overseas Security Advisory Council, warned recently that “it is possible that Xinjiang-based ETIM extremists may contemplate conducting attacks to disrupt the Games,” pointing to “a now growing concern over possible threats.”
Hundreds of thousands mobilized
The Chinese government certainly appears to be taking security threats seriously. Nearly 100,000 policemen and soldiers have been mobilized for the Games, along with at least as many “neighborhood watch” volunteers, now kitted out in tennis shirts emblazoned with the Beijing Olympics logo.
They have been instructed to report any unusual visitors or activity in their districts, according to Liu Shaowu, director of security for the Games’ organizing committee (BOCOG).
“We have engaged the general public,” Mr. Liu told reporters recently. “For those who intend to sabotage the Games, the most important way to control them lies in our people.”
In the northeastern city of Shenyang, for example, where some preliminary soccer matches will be held, cab drivers have been given security training and asked to act as “intelligence agents,” according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The government has also thrown a security cordon around the capital, requiring everyone coming into the city to show identity papers – a move that is causing hours-long lines at the checkpoints. On Beijing’s subways, police have imposed airport-style security measures, banning liquids and X-raying luggage, and on the streets Chinese and foreign residents are subject to snap ID checks.
When the Games begin next Friday, predicts the OSAC report, “the police will be very proactive in stopping any protests before they gain momentum. Though Western activist groups will likely try to stage small demonstrations, these will most likely be put down as quickly and peacefully as possible.”
Protest areas in three Beijing parks have been set aside for demonstrators, BOCOG security chief Liu said last week, but activists must seek police permission for such protests.
Normally, such permission is not granted, human rights groups have pointed out.
As for the likelihood of a terrorist attack, the government’s own estimate of the current threat level is “moderate.”
“Beijing is one of the safest cities in the world and China is one of the safest countries in the world,” Liu reassured journalists. “The general situation faced by Beijing is stable.”