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.
Last week, after pop star Bjork shouted "Tibet! Tibet!" after singing her song "Declare Independence" at the close of a concert in Shanghai, the Culture Ministry, unamused, vowed tougher controls to prevent future outbursts.
"It's inevitable that there are issues that are going to take place. It's how they react to them that they'll be judged," said Scott Kronick, who as president of Ogilvy Public Relations in China represents Olympics sponsors and has worked with the Beijing Olympics organizing committee. "What are you going to do? If you react, you're just going to create a bigger impact."
Officials are leaving little to chance. In a country that tightly scripts its performances and routinely stifles dissent, officials have mobilized every level of society to guarantee social order.
"The Chinese government will be tough on protesters," said Kang Xiaoguang, a sociologist and researcher at Renmin University. "The Communist Party clearly knows what's in its interest and they will not make any concessions."
The volunteer force, whose members wear red armbands to identify themselves, say they are there to be the eyes and ears of the government.
"We always stand at the gate of our compound, and when we see strangers who look like bad people, we will ask them what they are doing," said Xu Yangxiu, 65, a housewife and volunteer in Beijing's Chaoyangmen Toutiao neighborhood.
Another volunteer, a man in a brown jacket near Tiananmen Square, scrutinized a reporter's identification card before speaking.
"If we see petitioners or protesters carrying a banner, definitely we must stop them," said the volunteer, who would only give his surname, Yao.
Police say they won't tolerate protests "harmful to the country's security, sovereignty and land integrity." At the same time, they have been trained to be as polite as possible when stopping foreigners. To better communicate with tourists, they will carry small cards bearing the flags of foreign countries and phone numbers for an international calling center.
"We must bring foreign protesters to the security office politely. Then, security officers who speak their language will talk to them. If needed, we will inform their embassy," said a policeman in Haidian in western Beijing who asked to be identified by his surname, Song. "Of course, if Chinese protest, the police will bring them to the security office, too. But our attitude will be tough, not as nice as to the foreigners."
Police have also stepped up house-to-house visits to check residency papers for foreigners and for migrant workers, many of whom previously had been allowed to stay in the capital even if they had not found jobs, but now are facing pressure to leave.
The government has said it will allow reporters to roam freely in Beijing during the Olympics and interview any willing subject. But in some foreign capitals, Chinese bureaucrats have reportedly been compiling databases of those journalists perceived to be friendly to China and those perceived as hostile.
In the same way that the government has kept its detailed plans secret, so, too, have protesters.
"We're reluctant to give out too much detail because it will affect our ability to protest," said Jill Savitt, executive director of Dream for Darfur. The organization has been pressuring China, which buys much of Sudan's oil, to do more to end the humanitarian crisis in that region of Sudan.
Olympic volunteers think they'll be ready. In addition to drills involving mock terrorists and high-tech bomb detectors, they have practiced exercises in Beijing's new stadiums and gymnasiums involving mock protesters. When volunteers in one group act drunk and disorderly, those in the other group remove them from the stands, as politely as possible.
Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.