Across China, Security Instead Of Celebration

[MAP: Yengishahar, Xinijiang Province, China]
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 19, 2008

YENGISHAHAR, China -- Shortly after dawn on July 9, the local government here bused several thousand students and office workers into a public square and lined them up in front of a vocational school. As the spectators watched, witnesses said, three prisoners were brought out. Then, an execution squad fired rifles at the three point-blank, killing them on the spot.

The young men had been convicted of having connections to terrorist plots, which authorities said were part of a campaign aimed at disrupting the Beijing Olympics by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an underground separatist organization here in the vast Xinjiang region of western China. The group has long fought for independence on behalf of the region's Muslim Uighur inhabitants.

The public execution of the men was a dramatic example of the massive, unforgiving security operation that has been mounted in China to protect the Beijing Games from what Communist Party authorities describe as an urgent threat of violence and anti-government protest.

"Especially as the Beijing Olympic Games draw near, a range of anti-China forces and hostile forces are striving by any means and redoubling efforts to engage in trouble-making and sabotage," Yang Huanning, a vice minister of public security and an anti-terrorism specialist, said in a declaration to the Public Security Bureau's newspaper.

With the Games three weeks away, the precautions already have proved so sweeping that some observers question whether the sense of fellowship and fun that is supposed to accompany the Olympics can survive. Alongside the crackdown against Muslim extremists here in Xinjiang, for instance, have come confusing new visa restrictions, multiple roadside checkpoints, reinforced pat-downs at airports and subway stations, and raids on bars popular among foreigners. The result has been an atmosphere of coercion, not celebration.

On Thursday, China issued a manual advising the public what to do in the case of a terrorist attack, according to state-run media. The manual included guidance on how to respond to 39 scenarios including explosions, kidnappings and shootings, and attacks involving chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, China's leaders have extended the scope of their concerns to include peaceful political protests. In public and private comments, Chinese officials have seemed just as determined to prevent pro-Tibet demonstrators from unfurling banners in front of television cameras as they are to head off hotel bombings by Muslim extremists, according to Chinese specialists and foreign diplomats.

The Beijing Public Security Bureau warned recently on its Web site that any demonstration must have prior approval from authorities, in effect banning anti-government protest.

Aware of the misgivings about overkill, Chinese authorities have said their top priorities must be to guarantee the safety of Olympic athletes and spectators, and to prevent political protests from ruining the display of international harmony long promised to the Chinese people. If the resulting security measures seem heavy-handed to some foreigners, they have said, it is only because of a failure to understand the stakes involved.

"A safe Olympics is the biggest indicator of the success of the Games," Xi Jinping, a member of the party's elite Politburo Standing Committee and the senior official supervising preparations, said in a recent speech. "A safe Olympics is also the biggest indicator of the positive reflection of our nation's image."

Ma Xin, a government security expert who is part of an Olympic advisory team, said security must be tight not only because of the threat of violence but also because thousands of foreign dignitaries will be on hand, including President Bush, and could become targets for international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.

Added Liu Jiangyong, a national security specialist at Qinghua University's Institute of International Studies: "The more China wants to show hospitality, the more it should pay attention to security issues."

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