China stumbles on security balance beam

March 15, 2008

Never short of people power, Beijing's Olympic boulevards will bristle with soldiers and vigilant volunteers, but will visitors feel suffocated under the city's security blanket? Mary-Anne Toy reports.

China intends to mount not only the most spectacular Olympics ever, but also the most heavily protected. But the ghosts of the crushed Tiananmen Square democracy protests and Falun Gong spiritual movement mean that the challenge for China, determined to project itself as a peace-loving, harmonious and responsible world power, is how to do so without looking like a police state.

"We do not want to turn Beijing into a fortress, but a place with an auspicious and peaceful atmosphere that will make athletes, coaches and visitors feel relaxed and safe," said a former security chief, Qiang Wei.

The recent hijacking of a tourist bus in Xian with 10 Australians on board, followed by claims that two possibly Olympic-related terrorist threats had been averted - an alleged plane hijacking last week and the smashing of an alleged al-Qaeda-linked cell of 17 terrorists in January - have shone an early spotlight on how Beijing is preparing to ensure an incident-free Games.

The handling of the Xian tourist bus hijacking is a textbook case of China's lack of transparency. The Australian Government is still waiting for a full briefing from their Chinese counterparts on the March 5 incident. Xian police and security forces seized pictures and footage taken by local reporters and banned them from reporting anything beyond the officially sanctioned version of what happened, which is still sketchy. What the Xian incident - which experts are at pains to point out was a criminal incident, not a terrorist attack - and the two other Xinjiang-related cases demonstrate is that China will deal swiftly with any perceived threats but most likely will not be explaining its action to anyone anytime soon.

With the benefit of a vast security mechanism already in place, China has long been considered, for foreigners, one of the safest places to be. The ability of the ruling Communist Party to rally mass labour and resources swiftly has been seen by Beijing Games organisers as an advantage it has over Sydney and Athens.

Peter Ryan, as NSW's police commissioner, assembled an Olympic security force of 11,500 police, firefighters, private security and volunteers to protect the 2000 Sydney Games. Mr Ryan, the International Olympic Committee's security adviser, is advising for the Beijing Games, where the security force will be considerably larger.

Beijing will have 90,000-100,000 armed and unarmed police, supplemented by paramilitary outfits such as the 810-strong SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team and commando units such as the 300-strong "Snow Wolves" brigade, unspecified numbers of private security guards and the full force of the country's military, the People's Liberation Army.

It is enlisting a "citizens' army" of up to 600,000 patriotically minded Beijing citizens and students - one for every expected foreign visitor and the 30,000 journalists with a few to spare. The citizen's army, either wearing red or blue Olympic security armbands, will monitor streets, neighbourhoods and other public places to watch out for trouble-makers. Half of the official 100,000 Beijing Olympic volunteers will also be on full-time security duties. A Beijing Olympics source said: "If there's a demo, it will be the local people who stop it because there will be a wave of patriotism, nationalism that will negate the effect of any foreign demonstrations."

Top officers from around the country are being seconded to hone Beijing's security, as well as to supplement security at the other six cities that will host Olympic events: Qingdao (sailing), Hong Kong (equestrian) and Tianjin, Shenyang, Qinhuangdao and Shanghai (soccer).

The People's Liberation Army's new Olympics unit, comprising army, navy and air force personnel, is responsible for border control - to prevent terrorists, Falun Gong followers, Tibet independence groups and others infiltrating during Games time - as well as responding to non-traditional threats such as biochemical and nuclear terrorist attacks.

The state's already extensive internet and phone surveillance systems have also been comprehensively upgraded. The Beijing Municipal Government has spent at least 500 million yuan (about $80 million) on new equipment. Snow Wolves commandos will be carrying at least 300,000 yuan of equipment. Six new computer and technology systems built for the Olympics meet inside the Digital Beijing building on the Olympic Green, close to the Bird's Nest National Stadium.

Digital Beijing is touted as the city's "first government data pool and emergency command centre". It integrates government, police and other security networks and will be able to track phone and web communications in the event of a terrorist attack.

By August Beijing expects to have up to 300,000 surveillance cameras, according to some reports, monitoring subway stations exits and entrances, and major venues will have face-recognition software to search for known trouble-makers.

Non-government video footage - from hotels, restaurants and other private venues - has to be automatically sent to the Public Security Bureau - Beijing Police - where it will reportedly be fed into a vast computer surveillance network and decoded by multilingual voice software that scans for key words and phrases that might indicate a threat. Beijing still trails far behind the 2012 Olympic hosts, London, which has an estimated 500,000 cameras in place.

A Western security source involved with the Olympics said it was difficult for China to provide the necessary security without creating an oppressive atmosphere, something authorities are anxious to avoid.

"Every country holding an Olympics is on a steep learning curve, but one thing China has done is embrace interaction with countries and agencies with experience like Sydney and Athens," the Western security source said. In recent years regular delegations of security personnel have travelled to Australia to consult with Olympics and Commonwealth Games organisers.

"But they [security plans] are still very much being planned and it's difficult ? at this point to give a definitive assessment or answer to how well they're doing."

The Olympic Security Co-ordination Group, the most senior security body, was set up in December 2004 and has already seen up to 52 separate security plans. Earlier this year Xi Jinping, heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, was put in charge of the overall Olympic effort, signalling how seriously the regime takes the success of the Games. The separate Beijing Olympic intelligence centre and Olympic security command centre, as well as the People's Liberation Army's Olympic security unit, are theoretically subordinate to the Olympic Security Co-ordination Group. But the military's Olympic unit is also answerable to the People's Liberation Army's Headquarters of the General Staff.

Such multiplicity is a possible source of problems, some experts say. A Beijing-based political analyst, Dr Russell Leigh Moses, said authorities in Beijing still seemed to be working out what their response would be during the Games. "Consensus is a tough commodity to come by for Chinese decision-makers in any event, and the complexity of this problem makes getting agreement at various levels of the government very difficult, indeed. All of this will require the sort of inter-agency co-ordination and bureaucratic co-operation that many Chinese government officials find very difficult to achieve. Dealing with directives from the top is easier for them than discussing shared responsibility.

"Thus far, there seems to be very few incentives for officials here to reach out to sources of potential opposition to see what might be done to stave off protests. The default position appears to be suppression of any and every threat, be that terrorist or other sorts of grievances."

The threat to the Beijing Games from terrorism is low, most experts say, but the event is an irresistible platform for critics of the Government, ranging from free-speech advocates to activists over Sudan's troubled Darfur region.

Professor Zhang Jiadong, counter-terrorism expert at Shanghai's Fudan University, told the Herald that the terrorist threat in Xinjiang was "not too serious" because China's efforts to suppress separatist forces had intensified since the September 11 attacks . "There will not be any major terrorist attacks during the Beijing Olympics ? but we might see some small groups based in Xinjiang attempting to undertake some type of limited action. Security measures during Beijing Olympics will be basically the same as Athens and Sydney. One difference is that Beijing has bigger and denser populations than the previous two, so any minor incident will have a greater impact on the city. On the other hand, the advantage is that more personnel from volunteers and community will be involved. Under China's current system they are easier to be mobilised."

Steve Vickers, a former head of criminal intelligence for the Hong Kong Police who now runs the consulting firm International Risk Ltd, says while the lack of details about the alleged terrorism threats makes it difficult to assess the level of risk, he suspects it is low.

"These people [Xinjiang separatists] are inspired by Muslim fundamentalists from neighbouring countries [Xinjiang shares borders with eight nations including Pakistan and Afghanistan] but these are minor issues and, relative to the scale of China's security machine, they are well on top of the situation," Mr Vickers said. "There are always going to be disgruntled people ? but for a terrorist Beijing is one of the hardest targets on the planet."

However, some Chinese officials familiar with the country's counter-terrorism plans insist the threats are very real. They describe a litany of foiled terrorist plots in Xinjiang province in recent years, which they say are connected to Islamist extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "The Xinjiang security situation is relatively serious," a Chinese official said.

Interpol's secretary-general, Ronald Noble, said in Beijing last September that the absence of a terrorist incident or serious criminal activity would be an "important measure" of the success of the Games, and the agency's website says that the Beijing Games are a "prime theoretical target for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups". But both Interpol and the International Olympic Committee have said thus far that they are satisfied with China's security preparations.

John Powers, a Tibet scholar from the Australian National University, says even if groups are successful in infiltrating the Olympics to protest, the reaction may not be as they expect. When the Icelandic singer Bjork yelled "Tibet, Tibet" after singing her unauthorised song Declare Independence at a recent Shanghai concert, the Chinese audience was confused and embarrassed, Dr Powers said. The Government condemned Bjork's actions with the ultimate criticism, "that it had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" and began an investigation.

"Most Chinese people feel that the Tibetans should shut up ? they have no idea what the fuss is about (from the rest of the world) because they are constantly bombarded with pictures of happy Tibetans and stories about the endless investment and economic grown in the region," Dr Powers said.

"Ninety-nine point nine per cent of people completely buy the party line and so see protesters as cranks and tools of Western imperialism."

with John Garnaut