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China Rolls Out Security Crackdown Ahead of Olympics

August 5, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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In preparation for the Olympics, China has mobilized thousands of police and military and enacted unusual security masures to protect Beijing during the Games. Analysts examine how Beijing has sought to hone its image and tighten its security.

MARGARET WARNER: When Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Olympic Summer Games seven years ago, there were widespread celebrations and suggestions that it would bring greater openness to China.

CHINESE CITIZEN: It will be a big promote for the country to arrive in the right direction.

MARGARET WARNER: But in the lead-up to Friday night’s opening ceremony, Chinese authorities have been detaining and arresting dissidents of all stripes and even ordinary Chinese with a grievance against the government.

This woman says she was held in solitary confinement for 20 days after associating with people involved in demonstrations against the Olympic torch relay.

OU WENZHOU, Human Rights Activist (through translator): They pushed me into a car, and then they got a black cloth and covered my head like this. The whole ride was completely in the dark with the cloth on top of my head.

MARGARET WARNER: The Chinese government is also making it harder for potential trouble-makers from overseas, like those who protested the torch relay after the Tibet crackdown in March to get visas to come to China for the games. And the government is blocking rural residents from coming to Beijing to protest over local issues.

Security checkpoints now surround the capital city of nearly 17 million. Chinese authorities have set up three places for protests and demonstrations during the games: at three public parks, far from the main Olympic venues.

China says the crackdown is essential to prevent acts of terrorism, an issue that looms large for any Olympic host. Some 100,000 Chinese army troops have been deployed in that effort.

LIU JIANCHAO, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson (through translator): It is necessary for us to tighten security measures according to specific situations in some important public places of Beijing during the Olympics.

MARGARET WARNER: Chinese officials point to yesterday’s attack that killed 16 police officers in a majority Muslim city in western China. The city is home to a separatist group, the Turkestan Islamic Party, that last week released a video threatening attacks during the games and claiming responsibility for two bus bombings last month in south-central China.

Chinese officials have asked for the world’s understanding of its need for stepped-up security.

LIU JIANCHAO (through translator): We hope the international community can understand China’s concerns and promote cooperation with China on the issue of fighting against terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush, who left for Asia yesterday, told the Washington Post en route, “They’re hypersensitive to a potential terrorist attack. My hope is, of course, that, as they have their security in place, that they’re mindful of the spirit of the games and that, if there is a provocation, they handle it in a responsible way, without violence.”

Mr. Bush will join other world leaders for the opening ceremony on Friday.

MARGARET WARNER: The crackdown extends beyond Beijing, as we hear in this report from John Ray of Independent Television News in Sichuan province. That’s where a devastating earthquake hit in May.

JOHN RAY, ITN’s ITV News Correspondent: Last stop before Beijing for the Olympic flame, Sichuan today, where they paused to remember the dead of May’s earthquake, even as more aftershocks struck the region.

The Chinese called the torch relay a journey of harmony. But here we found little harmony, only anger and tears.

Gian Ranjin’s daughter died when her school collapsed, one of thousands of child victims. Now her mother has been warned not to ask awkward questions during the Olympics.

“We’ve been told that, if we make trouble, our names will be blacklisted and our phones bugged,” she says.

China’s response to the earthquake matched the scale of the disaster and won wide praise, but when parents began to blame corruption for the shoddy school buildings that buried their children, the authorities were no longer so sympathetic or welcoming, as we found out when police followed us on our return to Sichuan.

We came to meet the family of an activist who took up the parents’ cause. In return, Wang Chi has been slung into jail and charged with possession of state secrets. Neither mother nor wife, let alone lawyer, has been allowed to visit.

ZENG LI, Wife of Jailed Activist (through translator): The principle of the Olympic spirit is harmony and democracy. The reason they’ve arrested my husband is they don’t want him to speak the truth. He has no freedom of speech.

JOHN RAY: Back at the school, parents still gather every day, even though it’s weeks since the ruins were cleared.

Outside, we meet mothers and fathers, and we see pictures of lost children. But before we can talk, plainclothes police arrive and demand our I.D. Every regulation, all these passes, is all to stop these parents talking to the outside world. There’s no arguing. We’re ordered to leave.

It hasn’t taken very long for the plainclothes police to turn up and tell us that we really can’t be here and that we’re not allowed to talk to any of the parents. And they’re telling us that we have to leave straight away.

Increased persecution in China

Sophie Richardson
Human Rights Watch
But I think what we're particularly concerned about is the persecution of people who would strike us as being ordinary people trying simply to get responses to their grievances.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on all this now, we get three views. Kenneth Lieberthal served on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. He's now a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

Ming Wan is professor of government and politics at George Mason University. He was born in Beijing and is now a U.S. citizen.

And Sophie Richardson is Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

And welcome to you all. Sophie Richardson, beginning with you, how extensive is this crackdown, in terms of who's being targeted?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch: We've described it as the usual suspects, plus, you know, prominent government critics who have spoken to the international press, who have talked to politicians from other countries, particularly the U.S.

But I think what we're particularly concerned about is the persecution of people who would strike us as being ordinary people trying simply to get responses to their grievances, either through the legal system or through other acceptable means of redress, who are, instead, being charged with violating laws on state security or other various serious criminal charges.

It's really anybody who's challenging the government's vision or image of a harmonious society.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you agree, Ken Lieberthal, it's the usual suspects, plus?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL, Former National Security Council Staff: Yes, I would. I think the Chinese system normally allows for some means for citizens to express their discontent -- for example, by petitioning, going to Beijing and petitioning for redress of grievances.

In the run-up to the Olympics, virtually all of this has been shut down, and shut down really very hard, as the top leadership through its security forces is trying to ensure a vision of what Sophie just called a harmonious society. That's what they want to convey, and they're being very tough about going about it.

A crackdown on disturbances

Kenneth Lieberthal
University of Michigan
Chinese society has become more diverse, but in reaction to their concerns about what might happen during the games, they've gone in the opposite direction. I think that's really too bad.

MARGARET WARNER: Ming Wan, how extensive or pervasive is it, it in terms of who's involved in enforcing it?

MING WAN, George Mason University: I think, right now, it looks like typical political campaign. You used to see China often so the whole system is being mobilized.

The top leadership clearly has made this a central policy imperative. And since there's no institution to check the decisions central leadership, the whole system is leaning to one side. It's like pushing a log down the hill. It's gathering force.

So the Chinese conception of national security has regime security at its core. So it casts its net really wide.

MARGARET WARNER: So you mean it's not just, say, army and police, but it's local officials?

MING WAN: Right. And they have armed police, police, the army, and the local government propaganda department. I think, you know, since the central leadership has made it very, very clear this is important, the whole system is being mobilized. And they will be assigned different tasks.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Sophie Richardson, I should point out you speak Mandarin Chinese. You read the press. You understand what leadership and ordinary Chinese are saying. What is your theory about why the Chinese government has reacted to the situation this way?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Well, I think it's because for both domestic political purposes, but also international ones, the government has invested a tremendous amount of resources in projecting to the world and to its own people a very particular image, that it is modern, that it is capable, that it is cosmopolitan. And anyone who challenges that vision is really coming into the line of fire.

I think it's also worth mentioning that we've seen the remobilization of things like neighborhood committees -- literally, people who will keep an eye on what their neighbors are doing throughout the course of the games, which is a step that we haven't seen or a tactic of surveillance that we haven't seen, I think, in quite some time.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ken Lieberthal, pick up on what Sophie Richardson just said about why. You said China wants to keep anyone who interferes with the image of a harmonious event from disturbing that, but why? Are they afraid of being embarrassed? Are they afraid of losing control?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think this really is, in a Chinese cultural sense, a matter of face, that they are, for the first time, taking on an event of this magnitude.

It's the most visible thing going on in the world during the next few weeks. And they want this to be absolutely picture-perfect.

Now, frankly, I think they're missing an opportunity here that they could have seized. The opportunity would have been to use the Olympics to highlight to their own people what it's like to be a major power in the 21st century, a more liberal, open, dynamic, diverse kind of place.

Chinese society has become more diverse, but in reaction to their concerns about what might happen during the games, they've gone in the opposite direction. I think that's really too bad.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way, Ming Wan, that this is a lost opportunity for China?

MING WAN: Yes, I do agree. And I think the excessive security measures the Chinese government is taking are counterproductive. They are really not presenting what China has become to the world, because they are adopting all these -- you know, the old tactics.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said something, if you could follow-up on, in your first answer about why, which is that you said they confuse national security with regime security. What do you mean?

MING WAN: Right, because, you know, when they talk about national security...

MARGARET WARNER: ... which is what they say they're trying to protect, right, from terrorists and others who would disrupt it?

MING WAN: Right. At the core, they want to make sure the Chinese Communist Party remains in power. And that's the regime security. So as a result, they consider political dissidents, anybody who might demonstrate or express grievances as troublemakers, and so they cast their net really much wider than, say, in a democracy like Greece that hosted the previous Olympics.

Did China renege on its promise?

Sophie Richardson
Human Rights Watch
They've got greater mobility in terms of their jobs, where they can live, traveling abroad, traveling domestically. But the reality is, also, that the government has consistently failed to progress with respect to key rights.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Lieberthal, is this -- and there's great confusion on this question -- is this in any way a violation of what China, quote, unquote, "promised" to win the games? Did they ever make specific assurances about greater freedoms and openness?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Frankly, we don't know exactly what they promised the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, in the process of bidding for the games and then whatever discussions took place in the wake of that bid.

But certainly publicly the Chinese conveyed the impression that the games would promote a more diverse, open, progressive China.

The reality is, I think, by the way, overall, from 2000, when they won the bid, until now, Chinese society has changed a great deal. And a lot of it has been in generally good directions. It's livelier, it's more diverse, and so forth.

But certainly the way they're staging the games doesn't fit the image that they led a lot of people to believe in their public comments.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that -- go ahead, Sophie Richardson.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Yes, I want to come back on a couple of those points. Certainly it's the case that, in some respects, the Chinese people have greater freedom now than they have in the past. That may be setting the bar a little bit low. But even...

MARGARET WARNER: ... since they're free to live wherever they want, they don't have to stay in their home city?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: They've got greater mobility in terms of their jobs, where they can live, traveling abroad, traveling domestically. But the reality is, also, that the government has consistently failed to progress with respect to key rights and that there are serious abuses that are not just happening, but increasing as a result of China's hosting of the games.

It's also absolutely clear that the Chinese government did promise the IOC that it would at least remove some of the longstanding constraints on the foreign press inside China. And those commitments have manifestly not been fulfilled.

MARGARET WARNER: At least not fully.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: I would say that the balance sheet is looking pretty negative at this point.

MARGARET WARNER: Ming Wan, going to international opinion of China and what impact that has -- we saw what President Bush had to say on his way over -- some Western leaders expressed their disapproval of China's human rights record in general by just not going to the opening ceremonies. Others, like the president, President Bush, are going, but say they can do more behind the scenes.

Criticism of Chinese leadership

Ming Wan
George Mason University
I actually think the Bush administration has handled this pretty well, in talking about human rights, at the same time, you know, avoiding confronting China, you know, what he plans to -- when he visits Beijing.

MARGARET WARNER: What's your sense of what impact either the cajoling, or the pressure, or public criticism actually has on the Chinese leadership?

MING WAN: I think right now, clearly, the strong criticism is not going that well in China. The Chinese government takes it very harshly. And because most of the Chinese public support the Olympics, I think they also do not take these criticisms kindly. And, in fact, you can see there is sort of rising nationalism.

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, a backlash from the public in support of the government?

MING WAN: Right. But the key thing here is the Western governments -- the Bush administration has been quite steady. I actually think the Bush administration has handled this pretty well, in talking about human rights, at the same time, you know, avoiding confronting China, you know, what he plans to -- when he visits Beijing. I think that, because I believe that he wants to avoid confrontation and over an issue that the Chinese public feels so strongly about.

MARGARET WARNER: Ken Lieberthal, you talk to a lot of people in the Chinese leadership. Do you think the quiet diplomacy has had any impact in this area?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think you have to look at the long-term strategy of the Bush administration, which has been clearly to engage China.

President Bush held a news conference for foreign reporters before he left for this trip for Asia. And one of the things he stressed was how he has developed a very good personal relationship with China's leader, Hu Jintao, and how he uses that relationship over time to build trust and to move China in directions that are important for our mutual interest, whether it's on North Korea or Taiwan or whatever.

MARGARET WARNER: But if I can interrupt you, when you look at the behavior, say, in this run-up to the games, do you think it would be -- it would be a tougher crackdown without the criticism or the cajoling? Or do you think China is just doing what it would do?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think it's largely doing what it would do. I don't think that foreign pressure will make a big difference on anything except around the margins.

You know, getting some more access to Web sites that have been blocked, or the kind of new restrictions on blocking cameras (ph), and that kind of thing, that your tee-up report for this segment indicated.

MARGARET WARNER: But you think they should do more, Sophie Richardson?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: I think there's a great deal more they could have done. I think this is an extraordinary missed opportunity for the Bush administration.

I think when the president said yesterday that it was, quote, "really hard to tell" whether China's human rights record had changed much over the last several years, I think that's in part because the Bush administration hasn't tried really hard.

You know, the president has gone to Beijing not being clear at all about whether he will engage in any sort of activities to raise rights issues, even to raise cases of people he's met before in the U.S. And we know that that's kind of -- you know, that mentioning individual cases can really make a difference in how those individuals are treated.

MARGARET WARNER: Quick final word from you, Ming Wan. Do you think there's still an opportunity for the president to do more when he gets there?

MING WAN: I think right now there really isn't that much time. I think the Chinese government is preoccupied with hosting the Olympics. And I think now, you know, what we should really be thinking is what will happen after the Olympics.

MARGARET WARNER: Think about what happens afterwards. All right, thank you, all three, Ken Lieberthal, Sophie Richardson, Ming Wan, thank you so much.

MING WAN: Thank you.