Monday, May 14, 2007

China: Security, Public Relations and the 2008 Olympics

How can the dictators sleep at night? Doing plastic surgery to a country of 1.3 billion is no small task. What a waste -- all that money could go for real reform instead of cosmetic changes. BTW, I don't mean reform through labour camps either.

Stratfor: May 14, 2007 18 28 GMT - Summary: The portrait of Mao Zedong overlooking Tiananmen Square was replaced May 13, a day after a 35-year-old migrant from Xinjiang threw a flaming object at the iconic portrait. The incident raises numerous issues regarding security and public relations for China ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.


A lone individual threw a flaming object May 12 at the large portrait of Mao Zedong that overlooks Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Security officials said the vandal was Gu Haiou, a 35-year-old migrant worker from Urumqi, Xinjiang. According to Chinese reports, Gu was a mental patient in Urumqi a year ago, and arrived in Beijing the same day he attacked the portrait. Chinese workers replaced the portrait May 13.

The attack and China's explanation raise several issues ahead of China's 2008 hosting of the Summer Olympics. While Beijing has prevented mass protest movements with relative success, individuals are much harder to control. Thus far, Gu appears to have acted alone, not as part of a coordinated campaign. His apparent status a migrant laborer from Xinjiang raises the issue of China's concerns over controlling both migrant laborers and people from Xinjiang, however.

Most important, the incident raises public relations issues for Beijing. While the Beijing Olympics are intended to usher in a new global image for China and spur a stronger sense of domestic patriotism, incidents like this have the potential to tarnish China's reputation. They also raise broader concerns internationally about the stability of the Chinese government and of society as a whole -- creating problematic perceptions that could weaken investment in China.

Chinese security forces and internal controls are designed to prevent any significant challenge to the central authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC). To varying degrees, Beijing has cracked down on religions, academia, labor and even direct-sales schemes to prevent alternative allegiances from forming. Beijing certainly has missed a few challenges -- notably from students in 1989 and from Falun Gong a decade later -- but in general, large-scale movements are much harder to keep quiet, and China's internal intelligence networks quickly pick up such plans and intervene.

On the local level, the track record is not as stellar, with villager and worker protests occurring with increasing frequency. But these are often more spontaneous and have much more modest, local goals than challenging central authority. Unless they can connect across regions, which they have not done thus far, they will remain localized security issues, and not represent a fundamental threat to the regime.

Ahead of the Olympics, Chinese security officials have been warning of Chinese Muslims from Xinjiang, which Beijing characterizes as part of the global Islamist militant movement. In the mid-1990s, a series of attacks in Beijing were attributed to Uighur militants, but Beijing has been rather successful in quashing any further uprising. Beijing has used the Uighur issue lately more as a viable excuse for tighter security and stronger action against other potential "problems" than out of real fears Uighur militancy has re-formed and will strike again. Despite that tighter security, and the closer focus on Uighurs, Gu still managed to come to Beijing and on the day of his arrival go to a very busy location -- one of the most monitored areas of Beijing -- and still have time to light and throw his incendiary device. This highlights just how difficult it is for Beijing to monitor the actions of individuals, no matter where they are from.

The real threat, then, comes less from mass movements than from acts of people who cause damage on their own or can spark spontaneous actions by others. In China, monthly reports of bombings or other violent actions carried out by individuals (usually referred to by the government as mentally ill, even if they are more than likely linked to organized crime or corruption) occur, often in relation to business disputes or marital issues. These are spread throughout a vast nation with a massive population, and rarely directly affect foreigners. The lack of easy access to firearms keeps shootings down in China, but the ease of access to dynamite and other industrial explosives makes bombings more frequent. Public transportation and restaurants are frequent targets of such attacks. Poisonings are not uncommon in China, due to industrial accidents, illegal dumping of wastes or rival business owners tainting the supplies of their competitors with toxins such as rat poison. While not
day-to-day occurrences, such poisonings -- as well as bombings or arson attacks on competing businesses -- do occur several times a year in China.

These individual acts, even if not directed against the government, can have a devastating impact on the image of security in China during the Olympics. Beijing intends to move most Olympic tourists to venues via bus in an attempt to control traffic congestion and pollution. But as with any mass transit, it is difficult to screen all passengers. With a massive influx of tourists expected, Beijing fears poisonings or attacks between competing businesses could quickly affect foreigners rather than just Chinese.

While the average Chinese are patriotic, and will avoid taking action during the Olympics that could undermine the national image, the actions of politically or economically motivated -- or just plain disturbed -- individuals cannot always be predicted. The probability of foreign visitors to China being injured or killed in bombings or poisonings is lower than their chances of being victims of petty theft or traffic accidents. In the lead-up to the Olympics -- which China hopes will spark a significant increase in tourism as well -- such incidents could undermine China's image as a safe place for foreigners to travel, however, even if the incidents do not take place in Beijing or at another Olympic venue.

With media restrictions being softened for the Olympics, even small-scale anti-government demonstrations, which normally get only brief international airtime, take on greater significance. Individuals seeking to air their grievances might assume that the presence of foreign media not only will give them a broader audience, but also will help constrain the reaction of Chinese security forces, which do not want images of security forces beating Chinese individuals broadcast around the world. Outside of Beijing and the other Olympic venues, the lifted media restrictions will have journalists scouring the countryside for a glimpse of the real level of economic disparity and social dissatisfaction, further weakening China's image. Beijing continues to struggle with its media rules for the Olympics. It is caught between being accused of too many restrictions and risking open dissent and the exposure of weakness and troubles.

For Beijing, the Olympics are part of a broader campaign to reshape China's international image, to come out from its box and be more than a place for cheap labor, human rights violations and lingering autocracy. Beijing has begun more active involvement in international peacekeeping operations under the United Nations, is shaping new regional development finds (the most recent for Africa) and is expanding civilian and military exchanges with countries around the globe. The Olympics are to showcase the new, modern China, and to remove any lingering doubts about the economic reforms and changes taking place in China. But the risks of exposing the continued inequalities and flaws in the system are equally great.

As the 2008 games approach, Beijing is grappling with the dilemma of ensuring extremely tight security without coming across as draconian. At the same time, CPC officials worry about the apparent precedents set by previous Olympics hosted by single-party autocracies. Within a decade after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the respective Nazi, Communist and military-backed regimes all fell. While the causes might have been different, in the two most recent cases in particular the Olympics were designed to showcase changes -- and encourage additional investments and economic attention. But the systems already were strained, and whether incidental or coincidental, the potential correlation is not lost on Beijing.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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