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July 24, 2008

The No-Fun Olympics


by Sascha Matuszak

In a few short weeks the party Beijing has been preparing for the last eight years will finally kick off, and the government's disconnect with the people attending the party is growing ever deeper. Around Beijing, the word is that these are the "No-Fun Olympics" and the entire city is forcing a smile for the visitors and the athletes and praying that no terrible things happen.

Local Beijingers seem to be waiting for the whole thing to finally end. For years now the government has been trumpeting these Games as the greatest thing to ever happen to the city and the nation, but from the attitude on the streets, it seems to be more of a large inconvenience. After spitting out the Party line about the Olympics being a symbol of China's rise, an average Beijinger will point to his pocket book and ask about his own personal rise. Business has not picked up like the government said it would for the man on the street. Instead, common people have been subjected to a series of "educational campaigns" to make them "more civilized" for the sensitive eyes of the Western tourists.

Registration with the Public Security Bureau (PSB) has become much more strict, nightlife has been curtailed, construction projects have kept the city under a veil of dust, travel restrictions are annoying, and for the thousands of migrant workers from Mongolian prostitutes to welders from Shaanxi the Olympics has meant displacement and a loss of revenue. And of course there are more and more foreigners on the streets, which is also annoying in this patriotic capital of a very patriotic land.

For foreigners living and working in Beijing, the Olympics are also a nightmare. Visa restrictions and residence permits are more stringent than they have ever been, and the reliable path of "connections" has been shut down in Beijing by zealous cops. Hundreds of foreigners have had to leave the country, with some going as far as their home country, in order to gain an expensive visa that lasts half the time it would have a year ago. If you are a white Westerner, it can be annoying but tolerable.

If you are black, then the restrictions are downright nasty. Several raids in the San Li Tun bar area of Beijing have resulted in mass deportations for Nigerian drug dealers and their innocent brethren. Black Americans face intense scrutiny, as do Arabs and other "undesirable" barbarians from afar.

For foreign companies sponsoring the Olympics, it has also become a large headache. China may be one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but it is also one of the most corrupt. It is standard practice to fleece the outsider in vegetable markets and the halls of government alike. Sponsors such as Visa, General Electric, and Coca-Cola are not satisfied with the amount of exposure their brands are receiving in return for the vast sums they had to pony up in order to become sponsors. Instead, they say, local companies such as Lenovo and Haier have all of the prime advertising space and paid a fraction of the cost. Several foreign sponsors have banded together to sue the government and force the Chinese to play fair, which is quite unlikely to happen. The Chinese response so far has been "You have enough exposure, so quit your whining."

Private security firms protecting their foreign clients in China are forced to choose a government-sponsored security firm to work with and three security plans to implement. These plans which in normal times carry a price tag of 150,000 RMB cost as much as 4 million RMB during the Olympics. For firms that won't play ball, registration and business licenses suddenly need to be checked by the authorities. The foreign firms get around this, but the blatant exploitation leaves a bitter taste in their mouths.

Journalists, promised unfettered access to the city and its people, are finding out that they will get no such thing. (Surprise!) It is easy to get around the ham-fisted attempts to keep journalists reporting only good news, but the government's assurances that this was going to be an open and free Games have come to naught. In fact, NBC has been forced to accept a 10-second delay in its broadcast of the Games. The Chinese initially wanted a 45-second delay, as the feeds were to come through their pipelines first before going to the outside world, but they agreed on 10 seconds. This, of course, is a meaningless agreement. If the Chinese want to shut down broadcasts of the Games to the world, they will.

Bar owners are also gritting their teeth. PSB officials went around to visit the bars over the past few months and suggested to the owners that serving Mongolians, Russians, Tibetans, and blacks would not be in their interests.

Even Chinese athletes are grinning and bearing it. Under enormous pressure from their government to "Beat the Yanks!" they are trained without pause and in many cases have forfeited their lives to the state.

But in China, everything is for the good of the nation. Big character slogans, a constant media barrage, and a powerful culture of self-censorship enforced by government supervision ties the people together in support of the Olympics, no matter what the cost.

The reasoning behind the severe top-down heavyhandedness of the government is not only to impress foreigners with the glory of China, but also to protect these Games from imminent threats.

China has clamped down severely in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Beijing. Recent developments include the shooting deaths of suspected terrorists in Xinjiang, alerts and crackdowns on suspected Tibetan suicide bombers and activists, and the expulsion of thousands of "undesirables" from the streets of Beijing.

The threats from Xinjiang are very real. A video of two Chinese engineers executed in Pakistan by a new group called the Islamic Party of East Turkestan threatened more violence in the form of jihad against the Chinese "occupiers and apostates." Urumqi Railway police have also caught a man carrying more than 100 detonators from Urumqi to Chongqing en route to northern China. The U.S. has sent a Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) to China to beef up their security in the face of these threats.

The U.S. government does not take the threat of Tibetan suicide bombers seriously, but for China the prospect of Tibetan protesters on the world stage is a nightmare. As with Xinjiang, China has played up the threat of Tibetan terrorism in order to justify crackdowns and get their message out to the world, the message being that Tibetan "freedom fighters" are actually separatist terrorists who need to be dealt with harshly.

Beijing's security web, although it extends across the municipality, is not without gaps. China is relying on heavy manpower, plainclothes police, and strict requirements for anyone entering or staying in Beijing during the Games as the major security measures against terrorist attacks. But many of the 100,000 "crack anti-terrorism" soldiers deployed in the area actually lack the training and experience to deal with sophisticated terrorists, and the 300,000 or so volunteers are basically useless, comprising for the most part a wide variety of local Beijingers eager to help their city. X-ray machines at the airports and metro stations are easily circumvented, which poses a grave risk to the Games. Beijing has imposed draconian registration processes for foreigners, visa restrictions, roadblocks for all traffic, and searches of incoming trains and airplanes. As of Sunday, no Chinese without a ticket to the Games will be allowed into the city and no foreigner without a ticket to the Games will be issued a visa. These measures have already displaced thousands of locals and migrant workers and will keep thousands of tourists away, but they're unlikely to prevent a determined and sophisticated terrorist operation that began, say, two years ago. The 9/11 attacks were five years in the planning.

The bombings in Kunming on Tuesday have shaken the security establishment in Beijing. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks yet, but the effect is clear. Beijing's metro and bus systems are vulnerable to attack because of the heavy traffic they see every day, but it remains to be seen if the government will take any extra measures following this bombing. The government canceled a press conference on the attack and broadcast a message over the media: "The Kunming bombings have nothing to do with the Olympics." Hopefully this is true, as a similar attack in Beijing would cause chaos.

These Games are the most politically charged ones we have seen in a long time, and the entire world seems to be waiting for some event to spoil the party for Beijing. But China is using all the tools a Communist dictatorship has at its disposal to ensure that this does not happen.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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