- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2008

BEIJING | A stroll through Beijing’s maze of hutong alleyways these days reveals much about the Chinese government’s obsession with security ahead of the Olympic Games and its unerring ability to rally its people around a common cause.

These quiet lanes are now the barracks of many of the capital’s 400,000 “public security volunteers,” a citizen army of neighborhood committees acting as the extra eyes and ears to Beijing’s Olympic security force, which already comprises 80,000 police officers, 100,000 counterterrorism troops and 300,000 surveillance cameras.

“If the Olympics are not safe, there is nothing else worth speaking of,” Xi Jinping, the top Chinese official in charge of Olympic preparations, was quoted by the official Xinhua news agency as saying earlier this week.

The mobilization of the neighborhood committees for the Olympics harks back to Chairman Mao Zedong’s concept of “people’s warfare,” said Willy Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and a veteran China commentator.

“The committees were quasi-spy agencies until the late 1980s, usually made up of old ladies and retirees who would report on irregular activities of residents - such as those who had lots of foreign or Taiwanese friends. Of course, times have changed,” said Mr. Lam.

Nowadays, sinister it is not. But the government wants every angle covered.

On Arrow Hutong, just inside the second ring road, four elderly women sit on tiny wooden stools, fan themselves and gossip. Two wear official red-and-white polo shirts, sponsored by the local Yanjing beer, that have been given to every Olympic security volunteer.

The other two are identified by Cultural Revolution-era red armbands even though officials said last year that they wanted to scrap them to “move with the times.” The new polo shirts are too hot, the two women complain.

“There is nothing for us to do. There is no crime here and hardly any people walking around,” said a woman who gave only her family name, Zhu. “But we want to do our bit to help China host a great Olympics.”

Her most pressing task, she said, is to ensure a clean environment. “We should also tell men walking around topless to put a shirt on,” she said. Minutes later, a couple of bare bellies wobbled past without reproach.

“Our job is to advocate Olympic knowledge and virtues, show people how to behave politely and to ensure harmony in the neighborhood,” 42-year-old Luo Tongzhu said.

However, the role is not without political connotations. Some volunteers said those people who were not formerly trusted members of the neighborhood committees were interviewed about their political beliefs and backgrounds when they applied for the Olympic program.

In the historic, but now mostly demolished, neighborhood of Qianmen, a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square, another woman who gave only her surname, Liu, performs a crucial act of censorship for her country’s leaders.

“The other day I had to scrub out a slogan on a wall which said ‘Falun Gong is good’ and I have ripped a couple of Falun Gong leaflets off doors of empty houses,” she said.

No one is likely to read them. Most of the residents have been evicted and the area now lies in ruins. But the slogan’s proximity to China’s most iconic protest venue, where members of the Falun Gong spiritual sect have famously protested, undoubtedly would fray the nerves of the authorities.

A heavy security presence on the streets of Beijing, combined with a slew of other measures, has attracted biting criticism from those who think the games are becoming the “no-fun Olympics.”

A series of armed police checkpoints, billed as the “defense line,” has been set up on roads leading to the capital. Several popular bars in the main entertainment district have been closed and stricter visa regulations have deterred business people and tourists from visiting.

The government insists all the security measures are necessary. “Beijing is facing a terrorist threat unsurpassed in Olympic history,” said the Communist Party’s official newspaper People’s Daily.

The government has singled out the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), based in the far western region of Xinjiang, as the chief threat. Senior security official Ma Zhenchuan has said intelligence shows the group is planning terrorist attacks during the Olympics.

Police in Xinjiang fatally shot five members of a “holy war training group” recently in the provincial capital of Urumqi, according to Xinhua.

“The suspects confessed they had all received training on the launching of a ‘holy war.’ Their aim was to kill Han people, the most populous ethnic group in China whom they took as heretics, and found their own state,” it said.

Two bomb blasts that killed two people on public buses in the southwestern city of Kunming on Monday heightened the jitters. The government ruled out any link between the explosions, terrorism and the games but people still wondered out loud why Kunming was targeted when it is so far from the Olympic host city.

“I can feel the atmosphere is intense at the moment because of the Olympics. We just don’t know if anything is going to happen,” said a teenage security guard monitoring a wall of newly installed CCTV cameras on view to passers-by.

Others are more dismissive of the terrorism fears. “We don’t feel any threat here; the fear of terrorism is a Western thing,” security volunteer Ms. Liu said.

Analysts are also sharply divided over the extent of the terrorist threat and whether China’s security preparations are disproportionate to the danger.

The threat to the Beijing Olympics is “very serious” and greater than for the previous games in Athens and Sydney,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the Singapore-based International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and author of a book about al Qaeda.

“ETIM has established links with al Qaeda in the tribal border areas of Pakistan,” he said.

“Their actions have been significantly disrupted by the Chinese in the lead-up to the Olympics. It will be very difficult for ETIM to mount a large-scale attack or attack an Olympic venue but they might attempt to spoil the mood by carrying out small-scale attacks in Beijing or maybe Xinjiang.”

Mr. Lam of the Jamestown Foundation said Chinese authorities are “exaggerating the threat to justify their iron-fisted repression.”

“There is no proof of concrete links between anti-Beijing underground groups in Xinjiang with terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda,” he said.

“The bulk of underground outfits in Xinjiang are secular, non-extremist, non-violent dissident groups which just want more autonomous powers in culture and language. Chinese propaganda has deliberately lumped together these dissident groups with the far smaller number of hard-core separatists that advocate the use of violence.”

Zhang Jiadong, a counterterrorism specialist and associate professor at the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said China’s security measures are in line with the threat posed.

“Some people have criticized the government for too much security. There is a fine balance between security and hospitality and it is difficult to get right. The Olympic organizers are definitely more concerned about security than hospitality,” he said.

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