Saturday, August 09, 2008

An Olympic-Sized Security Blanket

Time USA: Old Zhao is one unhappy Beijinger. His father needs surgery, but the doctor tells him that all operations have been postponed until after the Olympics. Unable to drive because 90% of vehicles have been banned from the roads, Zhao bicycles slowly home through the August heat; guards at every intersection force him to dismount for security inspections. When he finally does get home, his favorite dish of kidney and beans tastes awful. Because of endless delays caused by inspections of goods transported into the capital, only low-quality food is available at the markets, his wife tells him. "We can't even have a decent meal because of the Olympics?" Old Zhao says in a fit of anger. "Do those foreigners who are coming to Beijing for the Games get to eat vegetables?"

"I heard that the foreign athletes will have vegetables cultivated especially for them, which were not irrigated with water, but with milk or soy milk," his wife answers. Zhao chokes. He cannot swallow the rice in his mouth. The five rings of the Olympic logo, he says, feel like five loops that yoke his neck one by one.

Though pure fiction, the story of Old Zhao is circulating widely on the Chinese Internet these days, with plenty of rueful comments trailing in its wake. It reflects a sour undercurrent running beneath the blare of Olympic triumphalism that reached a crescendo in the days before the Aug. 8 opening ceremony. With the capital socked in for days by a gray haze, there was a literal and metaphorical pall hanging over what Beijing has long hoped would be a moment of glory marking the country's re-emergence, after years of darkness and irrelevance, as a world power.

In fact, the problems that plague Old Zhao are symbolic of broader challenges that could yet damage the world's perception of what are slated to be the most symbol-laden Games ever. Foremost is the massive security operation that has disrupted the lives of residents and visitors, as the host city's ubiquitous policemen and soldiers repeatedly stop vehicles and individuals for inspection. Then there are other issues, such as the ejection from the city of migrant workers, the government-ordered closure of numerous bars, restaurants and clubs, even the surprising lack of foreign visitors due to strict new visa policies put in place to lessen the threat of terrorists and outside agitators spoiling Beijing's festive mood. And let's not forget the air; despite restrictions on car travel, temporary factory closures and construction-site shutdowns, Beijing's atmosphere remains murky, and pollution levels hover at a level that would be classified as "heavy" in most countries.

China's superhuman efforts to put its best foot forward and put on a good show could, in the end, prove to be as harmful to the Olympic spirit as any sour-faced street protest. Xu Guoqi, author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008 and a history professor at Kalamazoo College in the U.S., says that Beijing's overzealous approach to security has limited the chances for spontaneous celebrations. Even Chinese citizens are forbidden to wear nationalistic T shirts into sporting events. "Beijing is being overcautious," says Xu. "I guess that's in order to host a safe Olympics, but I think they killed the fun."

Few would begrudge China the satisfaction of staging a successful Olympics or question that, in the long run, the awarding of the Games to Beijing will prove to be a milestone in China's re-engagement with the world. But there is also little doubt that the immediate impact has been a worrying increase in the authorities' already draconian treatment of dissenting voices such as human-rights activists and restive ethnic minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs. Keeping a lid on protest has proven difficult — the bright Olympics spotlight draws all manner of dissidents. Whatever the Chinese authorities and the International Olympic Committee might say about separating politics and sport, the Beijing Games have become the most politicized in decades. Less than five days before the flame was lit, there was a shocking attack by Muslim separatists in the city of Kashgar in China's far western Xinjiang region that left 16 policemen dead and equal number badly wounded. A few days later, a shadowy militant group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party issued a video asserting plans to attack the Olympics. "Do not stay on the same bus, on the same train, on the same plane, in the same buildings or any place the Chinese are," the group's spokesman warned Muslims.

There were less dramatic protests in the capital, too. A team of foreign protesters scrambled up lampposts near the iconic "bird's nest" National Stadium to hang FREE TIBET banners. Three Christians were bundled out of Tiananmen Square after displaying signs calling for religious freedom in China. Then came the news that Beijing had barred entry to former U.S. Olympian Joey Cheek, a speed skater and prominent critic of China's closeness to the Sudanese regime blamed for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Darfur. (The Cheek incident didn't stop the U.S. team from choosing a prominent member of a group of athletes who lobby on Darfur to carry the delegation's flag in the opening ceremony.) Another controversy erupted when four members of the U.S. cycling team arrived at Beijing's international airport wearing face masks to protest the city's pollution. The riders were later forced to apologize. Even U.S. President George W. Bush, on his way to watch the Games as a self-professed sports fan, got into the act by expressing "deep concern" about China's human-rights record. "America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents and human-rights advocates and religious activists," Bush said in a speech in Bangkok a day before leaving for China. "We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labor rights not to antagonize China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential."

In Beijing, ordinary Chinese are finding that their freedoms are more curtailed than usual. A highly visible force of 110,000 soldiers and police officers patrol the capital, aided by 290,000 citizens wearing armbands and shirts identifying them as "security volunteers." Some neighborhoods seem to have more guards than residents. Bus and subway riders are subject to random luggage probes, and a series of checkpoints on roads leading into Beijing have produced miles-long traffic jams. An anticipated Olympics-related tourism boom looks to be more of a damp squib, probably due in part to unusually strict enforcement of visa regulations. Some 500,000 tourists will visit Beijing this month, according to official estimates — that's about the same number that checked out the capital in August last year. One Chinese netizen named Ran Zaifei had this to say about the security restrictions: "Originally the Olympic Games were just that: games. But this game has become so heavily guarded that it's really gone over the top," Ran wrote on his blog. "Government officials should do a little self-examination: Why are they so afraid? It's impossible to tell if they're afraid of terrorist organizations or of the public."

Yet, despite the unhappiness over the security measures, the recent Kashgar attack was a reminder that a grave threat does exist. And, in retrospect, it should have come as little surprise that the deadliest attempt yet to use the Games for political ends would come in Xinjiang. Around half of the population are Uighurs and the huge province, which makes up nearly one-fifth of China's landmass, shares long borders with both Afghanistan and Pakistan, home to jihadist movements such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Chinese security officials have repeatedly stated that the possibility of a terrorist attack by Xinjiang separatists is the greatest danger to the Olympics — though critics say much of the government's credibility has been lost by its repeated "conflation of violent and nonviolent" opposition to Chinese rule, as Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher with New York City – based Human Rights Watch, puts it.

During the 1980s, Xinjiang militants routinely targeted police stations, military bases and similar targets, but such attacks stopped in the 1990s as Chinese control of the region solidified and was extended down to the village level. Bequelin, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the separatist movement in Xinjiang, says the latest attack underscores the "complete failure" of China's heavy-handed policies in both Xinjiang and Tibet. "We have to watch the government's reaction carefully," says Bequelin. "They shouldn't use this as an excuse to become even more oppressive. If people don't have the space to express the grievances they will be driven to support more extreme means of demonstrating their discontent."

For all that discontent, however, it's worth remembering that Beijing is playing host to millions of people who are determined to enjoy the Olympics (if they are spectators); to do their best in competition (if they are athletes); and indeed to celebrate China's greatest moment. "It could be that when the Games start, everybody forgets everything and it's all about the glory of sport," says Jamie Metzl, executive vice president of the New York City – based Asia Society and a former senior government official in the Clinton Administration. "I hope that that's the case. But there are a number of issues, whether it's Tibet, pollution, Falun Gong, doping. We don't know whether those issues are going to emerge. But they could and then take on a life of their own."

And how does the story of Old Zhao end? He finally gets help from a member of his neighborhood committee, which gives him a pill that puts him in a coma for a month — an option also taken up by most of his neighbors. When he wakes up the Olympics are over and China has won more gold medals than any other country. "Not even a tiny accident had happened," the Internet story goes. "Foreigners were awed." Perhaps Old Zhao should have stayed awake and taken his chances. That's the attitude of Xu, the history professor, who has been traveling around the country since July and arrived in Beijing on Aug. 4. Xu wants to witness the spectacle. Whether he stays, he says, "depends on how much fun I have." And that may depend upon Beijing's willingness to lighten up and enjoy the show.

with reporting by Austin Ramzy/Kashgar

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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