China’s Olympic Battle Plan

Before the games begin, China intends to clear Beijing of tens of thousands of unwanted people and set up detention centres in the suburbs to hold petitioners who are expected to flock to the capital, while 70,000 police will patrol the district where most Olympic events will be held.

With the event less than six months away, a sense of tentative unease is increasing as China prepares to welcome 1,000 heads of state and government leaders, 10,000 athletes and tens of thousands of reporters and many more spectators, by far the largest number of foreigners the capital has ever received.

Addressing 200 members of the Central Committee in December, party chief Hu Jintao said that everything appeared to be going well, but everyone must raise their sense of crisis and awareness of risk.

The message was repeated in a lengthy article in the official Outlook magazine in January, “Establishing a Guide to Crisis Management.” China, the article said, faces foreign threats in finance, energy, trade protectionism and ideology. In a speech on January 17 to the Central Disciplinary Inspection Committee, Hu said that the greatest threat could be a lack of preparedness.

“We are at a turning point in history,” said Shen Jiru, a researcher at the Institute of World Economy and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The intense coverage of China and the spreading of the ‘China threat’ reflect the fear that we can overtake the west.”

For these conservatives, the Olympics gives “anti-China” elements an opportunity to show a less-benign face of the country in front of a global television audience during a 16-day window when Beijing will lose much of its customary tight-control of events.

As a result the government is doing everything possible to make that control last as long as it can. Last November it implemented the Emergency Response Law for management and reporting of emergencies.

In January, Li Changchuan, head of Beijing’s nuclear shelter bureau, said that the city’s underground hotels and dormitories, built in the event of a Soviet or American attack, would be cleared of their 80,000 residents ahead of the games and all the space would be left vacant until they are over, presumably to clear room for possible troublemakers.

Li Guozhu, head of Beijing’s Petition Bureau, said the city could expect about 200,000 petitioners from all over the country seeking assistance or redress. Provincial governments are setting up detention centers in the Beijing suburbs to house petitioners from their provinces during the games, lest the unruly masses find their way in front of a TV camera.

Cheng Lianyuan, head of Chaoyang district, site of many of the venues, said that 70,000 police will be on patrol during the games, and that surveillance cameras will be installed at crossroads, major buildings and other important sites by the end of June.

On January 22, Beijing party chief Liu Qi said that, by August, the city would be cleared of beggars and traders without proper licenses.

An important part of the preparation is learning the lessons of previous Olympics. They hold up Seoul 1988 as a model, when the disciplined Koreans sharply reduced traffic during the games, maintained a 97 percent on-time start rate for events and banned the eating of dog – beloved by Koreans, but despised by many foreigners.

Of course, Berlin in 1936 and Moscow in 1980 cannot be mentioned since the dictatorships that hosted them both fell from power 11 years later, an uneasy statistic that could be used by the fortune tellers and soothsayers who work out lives according to the cycle of years.

Another element of control is dissidents, including Lu Jia, 34, an activist on AIDS, the environment and democracy, who was arrested in January and charged with “subverting state power.” He had said that China had not fulfilled its promise to improve human rights ahead of the Olympics.

On January 17, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning Hu’s detention and demanding his prompt release.

Another victim is Zheng Enchong, a lawyer in Shanghai who advised residents removed by a large property developer. He was sentenced in 2003 to three years in prison for sending state secrets abroad. He was released but he remains under house arrest, at least until after the games.

Beijing’s efforts at control abroad have only been partially successful. U.S. film director Steven Spielberg’s resignation as an artistic adviser to the games’ opening and closing ceremonies last week over China’s policy toward in Darfur in west Sudan was the kind of headline-grabbing moment that causes Beijing to cringe.

China is the main diplomatic and commercial partner of Sudan, largely due to the pariah state’s oil and gas reserves, and has long maintained that the Darfur crisis is an internal matter.

Beijing also failed in its efforts to stop British athletes coming to the games from speaking about politics. After announcing a ban on such comments, the British Olympic Association was forced last week to back down after a public outcry.

Then there is the grey smudge that often passes for air in Beijing. On January 22, the manager of world marathon record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia said the athlete may pull out of the games because of the pollution levels in Beijing, which are five times the safety benchmark set by the World Health Organisation.

But, despite all these concerns, the nightmares of the paranoid among the Beijing leadership have not been realized.

Pollution will be forcibly lowered by closing the city’s factories ahead of the games and sharply reducing the number of cars allowed on the roads. The city’s railway station will be closed to inward traffic and Beijing residents are being encouraged to go away on holiday during the games.

So far, the problems have all been bumps, not major hurdles. Taiwan’s pro-independence president lost steam in parliamentary elections and is unlikely to declare independence or try to create an incident. Restive western China is far away and Tibet is quiet. The masses are getting rich and those that aren’t have little ability to organize any kind of concerted protest.

In short, if Steven Spielberg is Beijing’s biggest problem, the games are likely to be a political as well as athletic success.