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    Greater China
     Jul 30, 2008
Olympic paranoia clutches China
By Cindy Sui

BEIJING - With a little more than a week to go before China plays host to its biggest ever international event, the Chinese government is leaving nothing to chance.

Strict security measures ahead of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing have been imposed to ensure the Chinese capital presents China's best face to the world. But some of the measures, and the manner in which they are being enforced, border on paranoia, according to expatriate residents and overseas analysts.

To make sure nothing jeopardizes China's grand debut after 30 years of economic reforms and increasing openness, the

 

government has unleashed wide-ranging security policies. Surveillance cameras have been installed on streets and narrow alleys, dissidents have been detained or placed under house arrest, visas to certain foreigners have been denied.

Rural Chinese have been restricted from entering the capital and many beggars and migrant workers have been told to leave.

To the Chinese government, the Olympics are a wealth of opportunity. They are China's best chance to showcase its powerful economy and a prime opportunity to show the world that - despite a history of invasion, occupation and recent criticism for its human-rights record - the Middle Kingdom is now a major world power.

But the government's obsession with holding a successful Games is taking away much of the fun which surrounds the world's biggest sporting event.

The draconian security push could also be losing China money. Beijing has earmarked US$40 billion for the Games, but travel agencies and hotels are reporting less than expected businesses and even drops in bookings compared to last year. Other businesses in the capital are suffering from government orders to suspend operations to avoid pollution or closed for detracting from the city's so-called "orderly atmosphere".

Its previous goal of attracting half a million overseas visitors to China during the Olympics is no longer a priority. The government was spooked by the Tibetan protests at home and abroad earlier this year and now fears that other dissatisfied groups will cause embarrassing disruptions, such as street demonstrations, protests or worse.

"This is fairly unique. Many countries that hold the Olympics want to promote trade and tourism. That's natural, but exactly because of all these worries - terrorism, Tibetan protests, etc - the Chinese government is thinking 'We want no problems, we want no troubles and we are willing to pay the price'," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist professor and longtime China analyst at the City University of Hong Kong. "That's why they are imposing tighter visa restrictions and they are willing to suffer the losses in trade and tourism."

Since March, China has stopped issuing multiple-entry visas, making it much more difficult and costly for foreign business people to travel to the country. During the annual spring trade fair in Guangzhou, one of the biggest in China, many businessmen could not get visas. The visa restrictions are hurting tourism and discouraging visitors.

"This year there are a noticeably fewer foreign tourists, compared to last year," said an official at the administrative office of the China Travel Service in Beijing, who declined to give her name.

A man who has been selling tours to Beijing's famous hutong alleys outside the Forbidden City for the past five to six years agreed. "There don't seem to be more foreign tourists than before and domestic tourists also appear fewer than before. There are also fewer tourists from Hong Kong and Taiwan," said the vendor, who gave his surname as Wang.

According to an official at China's visa applications office in Hong Kong, all visitors traveling to China must produce not only a roundtrip ticket, but paid hotel bookings for the duration of their stay. If they plan to stay with relatives or friends, they must provide an invitation letter from their host, proof of their host's residence, such as a rental agreement or property ownership papers, and a copy of the host's identification card. To stay with relatives, tourists must provide proof of kinship.

These stringent requirements make it difficult even for overseas Chinese who are foreign nationals to visit China for the Games. Some foreigners who have visited China for business in the past have been denied visas.

Tightened security has also disrupted the lives of foreigners living in China.

Lekson Johnson is a longtime trader from Nigeria who has lived in Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong in south China, for three to four years. He buys clothes, mobile phones and other goods to sell back home. According to Johnson, police this year have stepped up passport inspections and detentions of Nigerians, many of whom are forced to overstay their visas because they have been refused extensions.

Johnson has seen many Nigerians arrested. They are detained for up to three months in the outskirts of the city, and not allowed to leave the country unless they pay a fine, he said.

Staff at the Guangzhou police bureau said they were unaware of such incidents and the office dealing with news media inquiries did not answer its phone.

In Beijing, an estimated 400,000 police, including anti-terrorism experts and patrol squads, have been deployed to provide security for the Games.

Overly eager police last Friday were captured on film by Hong Kong TV news crews as they pushed a journalist to the ground, shoved him in the face and harassed other reporters trying to cover a chaotic scene of thousands of ticket buyers at an Olympic ticket office. The footage was put on the Internet website YouTube.

Meanwhile, state-controlled television stations frequently air government commercials appealing to the public to be its "eyes and ears" in neighborhoods and to report anything unusual or suspicious.

Ground-to-air missiles have also been stationed at some Olympic venues to counter potential terrorist attacks, although threats from overseas terrorists are widely considered unlikely. The government is more concerned that disgruntled groups within China will use the Games to publicize their grievances and agendas.

This month, a man stormed into a Shanghai police station and stabbed five police officers to death. According to reports, he was upset over being investigated by police for allegedly stealing bicycles. Last Monday, two bombs exploded on buses in the southwestern city of Kunming, killing two people. Police are investigating claims by an Islamic terrorist group that it was responsible for the blasts.

China has said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement - a group seeking a separate state free from Chinese rule for ethnic minority Uighurs in China's western Xinjiang region - has been plotting terror attacks on Olympic venues.

The atmosphere is breeding fear even among Beijingers who are excited about hosting their first Olympics.

"I'm afraid to go to crowded places now," said one Beijing woman who told Asia Times Online she'd rather stay home to watch the competitions on TV than walk to a big screen built in her neighborhood for residents to watch together.

Cindy Sui is a freelance journalist from Taipei.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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