By: Our Correspondent


china-olympicBefore 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.