China Gears Up for Olympic Security Effort

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

BEIJING, March 10 -- The Chinese government has detained dissidents, conducted neighborhood sweeps to check foreigners for residency papers and deployed hundreds of thousands of Communist Party loyalists wearing red armbands to bolster security for the 2008 Olympic Games.

While the specifics of one of the largest security operations in Olympic history remain closely guarded, the government appears to be going to extraordinary lengths to control a two-week event expected to attract half a million foreign visitors and vast international scrutiny.

More than 600,000 "security volunteers," including retirees, guards and students, have been enlisted, in addition to the 90,000 police and thousands of military and border-control personnel that will be deployed, a spokesman for the Public Security Ministry said in a written response to questions.

Meanwhile, political activists say, police have arrested and detained prominent dissidents and stepped up telephone and e-mail surveillance.

"I've been warned by the police several times to be careful during the Olympics. The policemen who watch me said that they must do their best to protect the Olympics," said Zhang Zuhua, a Beijing-based dissident who has written about political reform in China.

"The police know everything about us already," Zhang said. "There is no way for us to organize any protests. Their biggest headache should be the thousands of foreigners coming. The police can't anticipate what their plans are."

China's ability to pull off a seamless event -- unmarred by violence or protest -- holds significant political importance for the government, which sees the Games as an opportunity to bolster its legitimacy. With 22,000 journalists covering the Games, though, any mishandling of a crisis could take on larger significance and perhaps further tarnish the country's much-criticized human rights record.

On Monday, officials reiterated their determination to hold a successful event Aug. 8-24. "An efficient Olympic security command system is in place," Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Games organizing committee, told the Associated Press. "We're confident of holding a peaceful and safe Olympic Games."

In the last week, the government has had to confront at least two high-profile security threats. On Wednesday, 10 Australian tourists and their Chinese interpreter were held hostage in Xian by an armed man who hijacked their bus. He was shot by police after a three-hour standoff. Two days later, a flight crew prevented an attempt to sabotage and crash a commercial plane traveling from Urumqi in China's restive Xinjiang province, the region's governor said.

China has not detailed the exact costs of its security operations, but state media reports last year carried early estimates of about $300 million, a fraction of the $1.8 billion spent in Athens in 2004, the first post-Sept. 11 Summer Olympics. The cost in Beijing, where security forces receive much lower pay, is expected to rise.

Even critics of China acknowledge that it has legitimate security concerns. But many say that those concerns are being overblown and that the government's efforts are aimed mostly at preventing disruptions by activists. Organizers are trying to head off protests like the one at the 1968 Olympics -- when two African American medal winners raised their clenched fists in a salute to black power.

Beijing is also concerned about demonstrations already planned for the Olympic torch relay. Among other stops, the torch will pass through San Francisco, home to a strong pro-Taiwanese community, and Hong Kong, which allows more free speech than the mainland.

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