x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Security hurdles: the most challenging Olympic event

Businessmen and expatriates are being hit hard by new visa regulations issued by China.

Chinese security personnel single out passersby for a security check near Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Chinese security personnel single out passersby for a security check near Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

BEIJING // The 2008 Olympics were supposed to be an opportunity to show the world China's impressive achievements, a coming-out party for the Communist Party. Instead, Beijing's obsession with security is threatening to turn the Games into one of the most staid and tense events in its 112-year history.

When Beijing was bidding for the right to host the Olympics eight years ago, Chinese officials won over the International Olympic Committee, and a sceptical world, with vague promises that the Games would result in a more open China. But now, rights activists are charging that under the banner of "One World, One Dream", the situation has taken a definite turn for the worse. "Our view of what the Olympics should be and their view is very different," said Russell Leigh Moses, a political scientist based in Beijing. "Their view is that this is not only an opportunity to show the positive side of China. The prevailing view of the government is to stop something terrible from happening."

Terrorism is a huge preoccupation. "Without security assured, there can be no successful Olympics, and the national image would be lost," Zhou Yongkang, China's top security official, was quoted as saying in the China Police Daily on July 15. "The stability of Beijing must be assured through nationwide stability." But China's attempts to suppress dissent have been criticised as over the top. A special security force of 100,000 has been put into place, supplemented by 150,000 security guards and 290,000 volunteers. Uniformed guards are positioned on major overpasses and bridges; surface-to-air missile batteries are reported to have been set up beside key Olympic facilities, and X-ray machines and metal detectors have been placed in the city's subway system. A third line of defence outside the city is screening cars and buses - often causing long delays into the capital.

"China wants to show its political strength to the world, not improve the human rights or the political situation," said Teng Biao, a professor of law at the China University of Political Science and Law. Some analysts have said the security preparations are aimed more at quelling embarrassing domestic political dissent than terrorism. The Communist Party has been struggling with a chain of troubling incidents around China this month, including a riot by 30,000 in the city of Weng'an, Guizhou province, after a young girl died mysteriously. Dissatisfaction is also growing among the country's rural poor, many of whom have had their land seized and feel they have missed out on the country's economic boom.

Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs and Mongolians - all suspect because they come from parts of China where there are demands for autonomy or independence - are also facing harassment. Some Uighurs and Tibetans report being refused hotel rooms in Beijing and some living abroad have been refused permission to return home this year. Since last year, Chinese authorities have been detaining prominent dissidents. Three who have been particularly outspoken about abuses related to the Olympics have been sentenced to prison in closed-door trials for, it was alleged, subverting state security or revealing state security.

Ye Guozhu, known as an "Olympic prisoner", was officially detained on July 26 on suspicion of "gathering crowds to disturb the order of public places". Ironically, he was still in prison when the charge was made. "The preparations for the Games are proving to have a negative impact on human rights in China," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher in Hong Kong with Human Rights Watch. "What we are seeing is a fairly comprehensive crackdown on activists designed to prevent news of human rights from getting abroad. The Chinese authorities are pulling out every stop to prevent what they consider embarrassing news from reaching an international audience."

Beggars, prostitutes, hawkers, migrant workers and rubbish collectors have been removed from streets. Migrant workers living in cheap basement apartments have been forced to move. "I have no idea why," said one woman surnamed Li, whose family was forced to move from the home they had lived in for more than a decade. "No one explained anything." Even aid agencies have come under attack. The website of one group focusing on hepatitis B was shut down in May, and its founder, Lu Jun, detained. Wan Yanhai, an Aids activist, came under so much monitoring that he volunteered to take a short holiday outside of Beijing for the duration.

And in an attempt to reduce the number of "unpredictable" foreigners in the city, expatriates are being refused visa extensions and have had to leave. Marketus Presswood, who runs academic programmes in China, is preparing to leave Beijing at the end of the month. He said many of his friends have already gone. "There was a mass exodus in June and July. My neighbourhood is like a ghost town. I'll be glad when this Olympics thing is over."

And even foreigners holding Olympic tickets have been forced to jump through rings to get visas. Judy Wise, a Chicago resident who said she has attended almost every Olympics since Munich in 1972, waited five weeks for her visa to be approved. "It's never been this difficult." The heavy-handed security measures have resulted in a noticeable drop in the number of foreigners in the city, leading some to dub this the "No Fun Olympics".

Recently, many bars have been told they cannot play live music. And where music is allowed, the songs must first be approved by the authorities. A handful of bars have been shut down, while others have been told to close their doors at 2am. Restaurateurs in some parts of the city have been told to pull in their outdoor tables and chairs and those with basement kitchens have been shut down without explanation.

The entire city will be a no-fly zone for four hours during the opening ceremony. Beijing's Capital International Airport will be shut down. Enthusiasts have been barred from flying model aeroplanes. The question on the minds of many, however, is what will happen after the Olympics. Most observers are hoping things will return to normal. @Email:pmooney@thenational.ae