Beijing once boasted the 2008 Olympics would be the best ever. But as the games kick off this weekend, the government's obsession with security is threatening to turn this into one of the most staid and tense events in its 112-year history.
It's no wonder some are dubbing this the "No Fun Olympics."
China's heavy-handed attempts to control things have been criticized as over the top. A special security force of 100,000 has been put into place, supplemented by 150,000 security guards and 290,000 volunteers—including an army of elderly people dressed in matching tennis shirts identifying them as "security volunteers," who are sitting around the city's ancient hutongs, or alleyways, on the lookout for potential troublemakers.
Uniformed guards are on major overpasses and bridges, surface-to-air missile batteries are reported to have been set up beside key Olympic facilities, and X-ray machines and metal detectors have been placed in the city's subway system. Vehicles entering the outskirts of Beijing must go through security checks—resulting in long delays. The post office has temporarily banned the sending of all liquids and some electronics.
And if that's not enough, some 300,000 closed-circuit video cameras have been installed around the city's streets to watch people while hidden microphones are in place to pick up the conversations of unsuspecting passers-by. "Our view of what the Olympics should be and their view is very different," says Russell Leigh Moses, a political scientist based in Beijing. "Their view is that this is not only an opportunity to show the positive side of China. The prevailing view of the government is to stop something terrible from happening."
Some analysts say the security preparations are aimed more at quelling embarrassing domestic political dissent than terrorism.
The Communist Party has been struggling with a chain of troubling incidents in recent weeks, including a riot by 30,000 in the city of Wengan, Guizhou province, after a young girl died mysteriously. Dissatisfaction is also growing among the country's rural poor and urban factory workers, many of whom feel they have missed out on the country's economic boom.
Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs, and Mongolians—all suspect because they come from parts of China where there are demands for autonomy—are also facing harassment. The Chinese have attributed some recent bombings to a little known Uighur independence group, but details are thin. Some Uighurs, Tibetans, and Mongolians report being refused hotel rooms in Beijing, and some living abroad have been refused permission to return home this year.
Beggars, prostitutes, hawkers, migrant workers, and rubbish collectors have been removed from streets. Migrant workers living in cheap basement apartments have been forced to move. "I have no idea why," says one woman surnamed Li, whose family was forced to vacate its home of more than a decade. "No one explained anything."
Even aid agencies have come under attack. The website of one group focusing on hepatitis B was shut down in May, and its founder, Lu Jun, detained. Wan Yanhai, an AIDS activist, came under so much monitoring that he volunteered to take a short holiday outside of Beijing for the duration of the games.
And in an attempt to reduce the number of "unpredictable" foreigners in the city, expatriates have been refused visa extensions and many had to make an exit in July, before the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Marketus Presswood, who runs academic programs in China, left Beijing at the end of last month. He says many of his friends departed even earlier. "There was a mass exodus in June and July," he says. "My neighborhood is like a ghost town."
Some of the precautions border on the absurd. Small bars have been told they cannot play live music. And where music is allowed, the songs must first be approved by the authorities—even encores need to be vetted. A handful of drinking venues have been shut down, while others have been told to close their doors at 2 a.m. Restaurateurs in some parts of the city have been ordered to pull in their outdoor tables and chairs without explanation.