Violence taints the Beijing Games

Saturday's attack on American tourists, and continued unrest in Xinjiang, have tested the trouble-free Olympics Chinese officials sought.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
Scene of the crime: A Chinese policeman (center) talked with a foreign official (second from left) at the Drum Tower, Saturday, where a Chinese man attacked two American tourists and killed one before committing suicide.

In one of the safest capitals in the world, currently under surveillance by one of the tightest security operations ever launched here, Tang Yongming still managed to murder an American tourist on Saturday.

Mr. Tang was not a terrorist, neither did he have a criminal record, according to Chinese and international officials, so nobody was watching him. Armed only with a knife he offered an embarrassing reminder to the Chinese authorities – bent on ensuring a flawless Olympics – that they cannot control everything.

“This incident proves that there is no watertight security anywhere,” says Chen Yali, a security expert at the China Research Group, a think tank here. “Surprises happen.”

“This was an isolated criminal case and no city in the world today is immune from such acts,” adds Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Games’ organizing committee. “Police will now take extra security measures at tourist sites.”

Fatal attacks over the weekend

Tang, who came to Beijing a week ago according to police, attacked Todd and Barbara Bachman, parents-in-law of the US men’s Olympic volleyball team coach, as they visited a popular tourist spot in central Beijing. Mr. Bachman died of his wounds, and his widow is in critical condition after what the US embassy called a “senseless act of violence.”

Embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson said, “We don’t believe this has anything to do with the Olympics,” but for the Beijing authorities and for their enemies, everything that happens in China at the moment is Olympics-related.

In Kuqa, a town in the restless far western province of Xinjiang, five men died in attacks on government offices before dawn on Sunday, state media reported.

This was the second attack by presumed separatist forces using explosives in a week. Sixteen Chinese policemen were killed last week in Kashgar, after a shadowy organization calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party issued a video threatening to attack Olympic venues in protest against what many members of Xinjiang’s Uighur people feel is repression of their culture and Muslim religion.

Chinese security officials have said repeatedly that they believe Uighur separatists pose the greatest threat to the Olympic Games, but most independent analysts doubt that they have the capability to strike in Beijing itself.

Snuffing out protests

So far, the police have had little difficulty dealing with the sort of political threats that officials had feared might get out of hand, such as illegal demonstrations.

The most active foreign group, “Students for a Free Tibet,” has pulled off nearly daily stunts. On Sunday, five protesters unveiled a banner outside Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square before police detained them. In recent days, climbers hung a banner demanding Tibetan independence from a 120-foot-high lamp post, three activists unfurled a Tibetan flag for a few seconds outside the National Stadium before the opening ceremony, and five more staged a “die-in” on Tiananmen Square on Saturday, wrapped in Tibetan flags.

All those involved were quickly bundled away, held for a few hours and then deported. “The police are trying hard to use civilized ways to stop protests being seen by the outside world,” says Ms. Chen. One morning last week, for example, policemen opened umbrellas to shield three protesting Christians on Tiananmen Square from press photographers.

Though foreign media have reported on such protests, the local Chinese-language media have ignored them completely. The demonstrations so far “matter very little,” says Drew Thompson, head of China studies at the Nixon Center in Washington. “They are being carried out by foreigners and Chinese people are not associating with them.”

Chinese citizens are not being allowed to demonstrate against the government either, even if they follow special rules announced for the Olympic period that were supposed to regulate protests.

Three parks have been assigned for approved protests, Liu Shaowu, head of security for the Games’ organizing committee told reporters two weeks ago. Spokesmen for two of those parks said Sunday they had been given no further information, nor any indication that any protests have been approved. Nobody answered the telephone at the third park.

Three Chinese groups are known to have applied for permits to protest in one of the official zones; one applicant, Zhang Wei, who lost her home when the Beijing government redeveloped her neighborhood, was taken from her house by policemen early last Wednesday, family members said, and has not been seen since.

Another applicant was warned by police to return to his home province, several hundred miles from Beijing. Leaders of the third group were sent back to Suzhou, a few hours away by train, escorted by police.

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