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."A Three-Layer Barrier
At a checkpoint in Hebei province near Beijing's southern suburbs, more than 100 cars lined up Wednesday afternoon at the entrance to National Highway 107, awaiting a security check. The checkpoint was staffed by a dozen men in police and camouflage uniforms, several carrying weapons.
Drivers and their passengers were asked to produce identification while security agents searched underneath the cars and opened suitcases. Foreign passport holders were singled out for extra scrutiny, and their IDs were checked against what appeared to be a national database.
The checks were part of what officials have described as a three-layer security barrier around Beijing that was implemented Tuesday and that is scheduled to last through the Olympics, which run from Aug. 8 to 24. All vehicles entering the capital are subject to search at any of the hundreds of checkpoints constituting the three security rings, officials said.
At the Beijing airport -- which will close during the opening ceremony -- passengers also have been warned that, beginning July 20, they will be subject to a search at the entrance in addition to already meticulous security inspections between check-in counters and boarding gates.
Here in the Xinjiang region, the precautions are even more severe. Boarding a flight at the Urumqi airport Wednesday required six inspections between curbside and the airplane door.
Aside from 80,000 police officers and half a million neighborhood volunteers mobilized for the Olympic period in Beijing, officials announced, 100,000 anti-terrorism troops have been put on alert, and people's movements will be monitored by 300,000 surveillance cameras erected throughout the city.
The Defense Ministry said the soldiers have been ordered to guard against chemical attacks or assaults by hijacked aircraft in addition to bombings or kidnappings. Hongqi 7 air-to-ground missile batteries have been set up near the Olympic playing fields and warships have been assigned to cruise offshore while the Games are underway. The People's Liberation Army also plans to have unmanned drones in the air to increase surveillance, according to the official New China News Agency.
Security officials have displayed equal zeal in seeking to make peaceful but embarrassing protests impossible during the Games. Under the newly rigorous visa restrictions, Chinese consular officials abroad have been told to refuse entry to anyone who "may do things that are harmful to China."
Television networks that spent millions of dollars on broadcast rights are still negotiating the extent to which they will be able to do live shots from Tiananmen Square. The iconic esplanade in central Beijing was the site of the June 4, 1989, crackdown against pro-democracy protesters; it would be an ideal site for foreign or Chinese demonstrators seeking to take advantage of the world's attention during the Olympics.
At a negotiating session July 9 with the International Olympic Committee, Chinese officials said live broadcasts from Tiananmen would be allowed only from 6 to 10 a.m. and 9 to 11 p.m. Beijing time. Only correspondents would be allowed to speak, they said, not invited guests who could make political comments.Separatist Group Targeted
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which mounted a number of fatal bombings in Xinjiang during the 1990s, has been designated a terrorist organization by the Chinese government. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration agreed, saying its leaders have links to al-Qaeda. But the group's exiled spokesmen repeatedly have denied the connection, saying they are only seeking independence for Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and look more Central Asian than Chinese.
Authorities have moved aggressively against the group, which they have said presents the leading threat of terrorism during the Olympics.
On the day before the executions this month, police in Urumqi, the regional capital 600 miles northeast of Yengishahar, raided an apartment in a gated, middle-class community and killed five Uighurs who the authorities said were preparing for "holy war." The official New China News Agency, quoting Urumqi officials, said those in the apartment, 10 men and five women, wielded knives and resisted arrest when surrounded by police.
Those who survived said they had received training to launch attacks against the growing numbers of Han Chinese who have been encouraged to immigrate to Xinjiang and who now make up more than half the regional population of about 20 million, the agency said.
Separately, authorities announced in March that an alert airline crew had prevented a man and a woman from blowing up an airplane that took off from Xinjiang. They were later identified as Muslim separatists traveling on Pakistani passports.
Chen Zhuangwei, who heads the Urumqi Public Security Bureau, said that in all, police have broken up five terrorist groups in Xinjiang since the beginning of the year and have arrested 82 people on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks during the Beijing Olympics. At the same time, Chen told local media, police closed 41 training bases for holy war, interpreted as closures of unauthorized Islamic schools.
Those executed here July 9 were among 17 people convicted in nearby Kashgar of being members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Radio Free Asia, the U.S.-funded broadcast service, said the others were sentenced to jail terms from 10 years to life.
All were captured in January 2007, when Chinese authorities said they raided a terrorist training camp, killing 18 members of the group and arresting the 17, according to what officials announced during the execution. Several local residents said some of those killed were strangers, but others were well known in Yengishahar, a garrison town near the border with Pakistan. The executions went down poorly.
"It was not a good thing, what the Chinese did," said a Uighur witness who discussed what he saw on the condition of anonymity.
Correspondent Ariana Eunjung Cha and researcher Liu Songjie in Beijing contributed to this report.