China on lookout for Olympic protesters
Government spy agencies and think tanks are compiling lists of potentially troublesome foreign organizations, looking beyond the human rights groups long critical of Beijing, security specialists and a consultant familiar with the effort said.
They include evangelical Christians eager to end China’s religious restrictions, activists wanting Beijing to use its oil-buying leverage with Sudan to end the strife in Darfur and environmental campaigners angry about global warming.
The effort is among the broadest intelligence-collection drives Beijing has taken against foreign activist groups, often known as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It aims to head off protests and other political acts during an Olympics the communist leadership hopes will boost its popularity at home and China’s image abroad.
“Demonstrations of all kinds are a concern, including anti-American demonstrations,” said the consultant, who works for Beijing’s Olympic organizers and asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The government, he said, is “trying to find out what kinds of NGOs will come. … What are their plans?”
While foreign governments often monitor potentially disruptive groups ahead of big events, Beijing this time is ranging further afield, targeting groups whose activities would be considered legal in most countries.
As such, the move carries risks for Beijing. Evidence that the communist government is withholding visas or engaging in heavy-handed policing to suppress protests would likely draw negative press and could unnerve the International Olympic Committee and corporate sponsors.
Scott Kronick, the president of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide’s China operations, said he raised concerns about the way protests might be handled when an official with the Beijing Olympic organizing committee asked him about the possibility of activists disrupting the torch relay.
“I said, ‘People will understand that. That’s the way different groups act. What you need to worry about is what your response is going to be and how you will act,’ ” said Mr. Kronick, whose clients include Adidas, an Olympic sponsor.
The Ministry of Public Security, the national police agency that runs some domestic spying networks, declined to comment, as did the Beijing Olympic organizing committee. Phone numbers for the main spying agency, the Ministry of State Security, are not published, and the Cabinet’s main information office would not provide them.
Concerns about foreign protesters are a reminder of how the Beijing games differ from most previous Olympics. Aside from the hefty $40 billion price tag and the government’s outsized political ambitions, security poses a different challenge, complicated by Chinese leaders’ repressive policies at home and growing profile abroad.
“They are worried about a larger number of things and they are worried about keeping the lid on,” said Arnold Howitt, who runs crisis-management training programs for Beijing officials at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Like all Olympic hosts post-September 11, China’s security services are concerned about terrorism. Attacks by militant Islamic groups, some of them homegrown, top the list of scenarios the police and the military are preparing for, Chinese and foreign security experts said.
Yet China also faces a plethora of disaffected domestic groups: Tibetans eager to cast off Chinese rule, farmers upset at land confiscations and Falun Gong, a once-popular spiritual movement the government suppressed. A research institute involved in crisis-planning for the Olympics has looked into possible unrest by unemployed workers, analysts at the think tank said.