Beijing Cleans House for Olympics

Beijing is cleaning house for the Summer Olympics. Last month security czar Ma Zhenchuan promised the extravaganza in August would provide "a sound and safe social environment." He kicked off a campaign to nab terrorists and murderers, wipe out prostitutes and porn, and even "strengthen controls over knives, bows and crossbows," according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. With less than 200 days to go, security forces are on "combat footing," authorities say. They've huddled with Interpol, consulted Australian and Greek Olympic security experts, imported bomb-sniffing technology and sent 400 police abroad to learn how Western nations "conducted criminal investigations and dealt with group turbulence, with an aim of offering world-class security," says the Web site of the Olympic organizing committee.

China's police are no novices at stifling domestic dissent. What's new is the focus on international threats, including potential troublemakers among the foreigners who've flocked to Beijing in recent years. Declaring terrorism their biggest threat, Chinese officials have studied 37 Olympic incidents, from the Munich massacre (1972) to the U.S.-led boycott of Moscow's Games (1980) after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During a recent Beijing visit, FBI head Robert Mueller declared himself "very much impressed" with China's pre-Games security drive.

Beijing's targets don't stop with Al Qaeda or other Islamic militants, including the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) in western China. Authorities are also keen to thwart foreign activists from launching high-profile protests in the glare of the Olympic spotlight. Already activists calling for media freedoms and Tibetan independence have managed to pull off Games-related demonstrations inside China. Critics of Beijing's ties to Khartoum and Rangoon have dubbed the games the "Genocide Olympics" and called for a boycott; they're likely to try to grab a piece of the August limelight, too. In response, Beijing has condemned any "politicization" of the Games and promised to deal harshly with illegal protests.

Of course, China didn't invent the pre-Olympic housecleaning. In 1988 Seoul officials cracked down on dog-meat restaurants, for example, to avoid offending pet-loving Western visitors. Beijing's sweep, however, is unprecedented in scope. Recently authorities sentenced dissident Wang Guilin ("We want human rights, not Olympic Games") to 18 months of re-education through labor. When NEWSWEEK visited HIV/AIDS activist Hu Jia on Dec. 20, he thought China was trying to soften its image before the Games. "If it weren't for the Olympics, I'd be behind bars now," Hu said. A week later he was jailed for "inciting subversion."

The clampdown is equally surprising for many foreigners, who are accustomed to lax enforcement of laws and corrupt officials, which give life in the capital the shady feel of a Raymond Chandler novel. In recent years an under-the-table visa industry run by freelance agents with ties to crooked cops has opened the border to all manner of foreigners seeking informal jobs—American copy editors, Philippine nannies, and Russian and African traders (including drug dealers and prostitutes). Then last August police began restricting sales of dodgy work visas and rounding up overstayers, signaling a sharp turn.

The campaign heated up in September after an Australian died of an apparent drug overdose in the Sanlitun expat bar district. Police and baton-wielding young men in black jumpsuits began raiding establishments frequented by foreign drug-pushers. In one sweep, security personnel beat dozens of black men and detained many who could not produce passports or valid visas, including the son of the Grenadan ambassador. Western onlookers (some of whom were forced to delete cell-phone images of the bust) were appalled.

The crackdown on Southeast Asian nannies got so intense that Philippine and Indonesian diplomats sought clarification; the authorities said they were upholding Chinese laws barring foreigners from working as domestic helpers. "We foreigners are all getting kicked out for the Olympics," said a Western expat who recently visited his gray-market agent to renew his visa, only to be told he couldn't get an extension past Aug. 1 "because China can't trust foreigners during the Olympics." Ma, the security czar, says the preparations are allowing Beijing to "re-engineer its security force" to provide better service. "It won't end with the closing of the Olympics," he promises.

Join the Discussion