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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Olympic paranoia clutches China

July 31, 2008

By Cindy Sui
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
July 30, 2008

BEIJING - With a little more than a week to go before China plays
host to its biggest ever international event, the Chinese government
is leaving nothing to chance.

Strict security measures ahead of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing
have been imposed to ensure the Chinese capital presents China's best
face to the world. But some of the measures, and the manner in which
they are being enforced, border on paranoia, according to expatriate
residents and overseas analysts.

To make sure nothing jeopardizes China's grand debut after 30 years
of economic reforms and increasing openness, the government has
unleashed wide-ranging security policies. Surveillance cameras have
been installed on streets and narrow alleys, dissidents have been
detained or placed under house arrest, visas to certain foreigners
have been denied.

Rural Chinese have been restricted from entering the capital and many
beggars and migrant workers have been told to leave.

To the Chinese government, the Olympics are a wealth of opportunity.
They are China's best chance to showcase its powerful economy and a
prime opportunity to show the world that - despite a history of
invasion, occupation and recent criticism for its human-rights record
- the Middle Kingdom is now a major world power.

But the government's obsession with holding a successful Games is
taking away much of the fun which surrounds the world's biggest sporting event.

The draconian security push could also be losing China money. Beijing
has earmarked US$40 billion for the Games, but travel agencies and
hotels are reporting less than expected businesses and even drops in
bookings compared to last year. Other businesses in the capital are
suffering from government orders to suspend operations to avoid
pollution or closed for detracting from the city's so-called "orderly
atmosphere".

Its previous goal of attracting half a million overseas visitors to
China during the Olympics is no longer a priority. The government was
spooked by the Tibetan protests at home and abroad earlier this year
and now fears that other dissatisfied groups will cause embarrassing
disruptions, such as street demonstrations, protests or worse.

"This is fairly unique. Many countries that hold the Olympics want to
promote trade and tourism. That's natural, but exactly because of all
these worries - terrorism, Tibetan protests, etc - the Chinese
government is thinking 'We want no problems, we want no troubles and
we are willing to pay the price'," said Joseph Cheng, a political
scientist professor and longtime China analyst at the City University
of Hong Kong. "That's why they are imposing tighter visa restrictions
and they are willing to suffer the losses in trade and tourism."

Since March, China has stopped issuing multiple-entry visas, making
it much more difficult and costly for foreign business people to
travel to the country. During the annual spring trade fair in
Guangzhou, one of the biggest in China, many businessmen could not
get visas. The visa restrictions are hurting tourism and discouraging visitors.

"This year there are a noticeably fewer foreign tourists, compared to
last year," said an official at the administrative office of the
China Travel Service in Beijing, who declined to give her name.

A man who has been selling tours to Beijing's famous hutong alleys
outside the Forbidden City for the past five to six years agreed.
"There don't seem to be more foreign tourists than before and
domestic tourists also appear fewer than before. There are also fewer
tourists from Hong Kong and Taiwan," said the vendor, who gave his
surname as Wang.

According to an official at China's visa applications office in Hong
Kong, all visitors traveling to China must produce not only a
roundtrip ticket, but paid hotel bookings for the duration of their
stay. If they plan to stay with relatives or friends, they must
provide an invitation letter from their host, proof of their host's
residence, such as a rental agreement or property ownership papers,
and a copy of the host's identification card. To stay with relatives,
tourists must provide proof of kinship.

These stringent requirements make it difficult even for overseas
Chinese who are foreign nationals to visit China for the Games. Some
foreigners who have visited China for business in the past have been
denied visas.

Tightened security has also disrupted the lives of foreigners living in China.

Lekson Johnson is a longtime trader from Nigeria who has lived in
Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong in south China, for
three to four years. He buys clothes, mobile phones and other goods
to sell back home. According to Johnson, police this year have
stepped up passport inspections and detentions of Nigerians, many of
whom are forced to overstay their visas because they have been
refused extensions.

Johnson has seen many Nigerians arrested. They are detained for up to
three months in the outskirts of the city, and not allowed to leave
the country unless they pay a fine, he said.

Staff at the Guangzhou police bureau said they were unaware of such
incidents and the office dealing with news media inquiries did not
answer its phone.

In Beijing, an estimated 400,000 police, including anti-terrorism
experts and patrol squads, have been deployed to provide security for
the Games.

Overly eager police last Friday were captured on film by Hong Kong TV
news crews as they pushed a journalist to the ground, shoved him in
the face and harassed other reporters trying to cover a chaotic scene
of thousands of ticket buyers at an Olympic ticket office. The
footage was put on the Internet website YouTube.

Meanwhile, state-controlled television stations frequently air
government commercials appealing to the public to be its "eyes and
ears" in neighborhoods and to report anything unusual or suspicious.

Ground-to-air missiles have also been stationed at some Olympic
venues to counter potential terrorist attacks, although threats from
overseas terrorists are widely considered unlikely. The government is
more concerned that disgruntled groups within China will use the
Games to publicize their grievances and agendas.

This month, a man stormed into a Shanghai police station and stabbed
five police officers to death. According to reports, he was upset
over being investigated by police for allegedly stealing bicycles.
Last Monday, two bombs exploded on buses in the southwestern city of
Kunming, killing two people. Police are investigating claims by an
Islamic terrorist group that it was responsible for the blasts.

China has said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement - a group seeking
a separate state free from Chinese rule for ethnic minority Uighurs
in China's western Xinjiang region - has been plotting terror attacks
on Olympic venues.

The atmosphere is breeding fear even among Beijingers who are excited
about hosting their first Olympics.

"I'm afraid to go to crowded places now," said one Beijing woman who
told Asia Times Online she'd rather stay home to watch the
competitions on TV than walk to a big screen built in her
neighborhood for residents to watch together.

Cindy Sui is a freelance journalist from Taipei.
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