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China nixes major academic conference ahead of Olympic Games

May 9, 2008

By Christopher Bodeen
Associated Press
7:32 a.m. May 7, 2008

BEIJING – China is on the lookout for protesters seeking to disrupt
the Beijing Olympics in the name of Tibet, press freedom, or religious rights.

Now anthropologists and ethnologists, academics who study human
development, appear to have been added to the list.

Without giving a specific explanation, Chinese organizers have pulled
the plug on July's world congress of the International Union of
Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, the latest in a slew of
events to be canceled or postponed ahead of the games in August.

"I'm not very happy with it," Union Secretary-General Peter J.M. Nas
said by telephone from his office at the University of Leiden in the
Netherlands. "And I hope still that they will listen to our arguments."

China has launched a nationwide security campaign to head off
protests, terror attacks, crime and any sort of disorder that could
challenge the government's authority or tarnish its staging of the
Olympics, a source of huge national pride and massive prestige for
the Communist regime.

In Beijing, the campaign has included increased security checks at
hotels, entertainment areas and rented homes. Foreigners report
random ID checks and police have even checked chemicals in school science labs.

Broader measures include visa restrictions that severely limit who
can visit, live or work in the country.

Public gatherings are especially suspect, with police ordering the
cancellation of several events on security grounds, including a
popular music festival.

The anthropological and ethnological congress had been scheduled to
take place in the city of Kunming, more than 1,200 miles from the
Chinese capital.

Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, where at least one heavily
Tibetan area, the city of Zhongdian, saw an influx of armed police
following anti-government riots in Tibet in March.

In a letter dated Tuesday, the China Union of Anthropological and
Ethnological Sciences said it had encountered "complex difficulties
hard to resolve" that made it "impossible for us to hold the congress
at the time originally planned." The letter, posted by Nas on the
union's Web site, said it hoped the event could be rescheduled.

"We have postponed the July conference, but I am not at liberty to
tell you the reason why," said Zhang Jijiao, one of the event's
organizers and a sociology professor at the Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences in Beijing. Zhang said 6,354 people had registered to attend
the meeting.

China's Communist authorities often give little explanation when
altering events for political or security reasons, other than citing
vague and often doubtful logistical concerns.

More than a decade ago, a non-governmental forum on the sidelines of
a United Nations women's conference was moved from central Beijing to
a distant suburb, ostensibly because the original venue was under
renovation. Leaders were apparently nervous over demonstrations, and
the controversy overshadowed the actual U.N. event.

Apart from the Olympics, the Kunming congress may have drawn special
scrutiny because its themes touch on issues of ethnic and linguistic
differences, as well as history and archaeology.

China is extremely sensitive to critiques of its policies toward
minority ethnic groups and their languages, even more so since
anti-government protests broke out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa
and spread to other Tibetan areas in March.
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