THE MAGAZINE

Let the Games Begin--and End--Securely

By John Barham

Information

The mainstream media has focused on censorship, but the ruling Communist Party’s tight control of information made it hard for participants, security providers, and even sponsors to get basic operational information to plan for the event. Corporate security directors based in Beijng complained that the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games, a Chinese government body, was secretive. They say it suffered from disarray and disorganization in the months leading up to the games.

Orders were given and then countermanded. Sometimes, action was taken without warning. In one case, government officials requisitioned the Beijing warehouses of a U.S. company for the duration of the games without prior warning.

“The Chinese think they can control everything, but they were late to realize the true complexity” of organizing the games, says one security director. Rumor and incorrect information spread fast in this information vacuum.

“We do not have a very clear scenario of what will happen. We are going to pay a lot of attention to what is happening,” says John Williams, China managing director at International SOS, a health and emergency services provider.

The presence of an estimated 5,600 international reporters in China to cover the games will stretch the government’s ability to manage the news. China rarely allows live broadcasts—transmission of sports and other live events is normally delayed by a few seconds to give censors enough time to block any offending material or political protests. However, there will be no time delays of Olympic events, making each venue a potential political flashpoint.

Culture

Security consultants in Beijing warn of a culture clash over security. As the government’s reaction to last April’s protests in Tibet showed, there is a chasm between the West’s more sophisticated, technology-rich approach to security and the aggressive methods usually employed by China’s authoritarian government.

The government is deploying tens of thousands of regular police officers of the Public Security Bureau (PSB), backed up by the paramilitary People’s Armed Police and the anti-terrorist Snow Wolf Commando Unit, to the main Olympic venues, landmarks, infrastructure, and hotels housing foreign spectators. These uniformed forces will likely be highly visible on the streets during the games; they probably won’t be kept in the background or held in reserve as in previous Olympic events. There is a risk that peaceful protestors will be met by a disproportionately heavy response.

“China does not have much experience in dealing with political protesters. They have a lot of experience in dealing with their own people but not in dealing with people who just want to get their banners up,” says says Neil Beatty, general manager of Control Risks Beijing office. “Senior government people understand the sensitivities involved, but the cop on the ground may not get the message.” Chinese police officers don’t speak English and hardly ever have contact with foreigners.

The government’s Beijing Olympic Action Plan, unveiled back in March 2002, promised “Tight, but friendly and peaceful, security measures.”

This plan is being rolled out, with security checkpoints guarding access to Tiananmen Square. Up to 6,000 security staff will travel on buses, according to China Daily. Riders on the Beijing metro will have to submit their bags for screening.

Security managers are hiring bilingual guards to provide an “inner ring” of security staff. They can provide close security and coordinate with incoming corporate teams and with government security officers.

Politics and protest have shadowed the Olympics all year, and the authorities have reacted fiercely. Government-controlled media reacted to international protests by whipping up nationalism.

Risk

China is a closely controlled society. Surveillance is ever present, and people are required to register and show IDs frequently. But this may not make China a tougher country for terrorists to penetrate than a Western democracy, because internal security is more concerned with suppressing protest than in intelligence gathering and terrorism prevention. The U.S. State Department angered China’s government when it warned American visitors that the Olympics “may present an attractive target for terrorists.”

“Security here is interesting because China gives the impression of being impenetrable but it’s more porous than you think,” say Wayne Wilcox, the Beijing-based Asia-Pacific security manager of Rio Tinto, a British-Australian mining company.

Even so, Wilcox says, an attack by al Qaeda or Uighur separatists are, “ultralow probabilities. Anyone who is not Han Chinese gets pretty close attention from the PSB.”

The authorities blamed sporadic attacks and hijacking attempts earlier this year on separatists. Others agree. “There are always terrorists, and groups like Falung Gong, and there is a risk of explosions, which would be a disaster. But honestly, I am not that much concerned about explosions,” says Patrick Wang, head of security at Nokia Investment Co. Ltd. in Beijing.

The government probably won’t be able to prevent foreign protestors, such as students, from coming to China, even though it has tightened visa requirements and border controls. Public spaces and the Olympic sites will be heavily policed, so activists may try to attract media attention by storming a sponsor’s event or hanging banners from their hotel windows.

The Olympics are a big issue even for companies that are not participating directly in the event. Most multinationals in China are based in Beijing and Shanghai, both of which are key Olympic venues. Rio Tinto is getting ready for disruption. Wilcox expects sudden road closures, saturated airports, and street protests, which could make it hard to get around the country or prevent staff from getting to work.

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