A look at security preparations and challenges in anticipation of the Olympic Games beginning later this week in China. (Online exclusive)
The Beijing Olympics are scheduled to open at 8 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. This is more than just a gimmick: eight is a lucky number in China. Even so, China’s government wants to leave as little to chance as possible. It wants the 2008 Olympics to be remembered not just as a sporting event, but as a celebration of China’s resurgence as a world power. This is why the government is spending lavishly on security to ensure a trouble-free event.
“China is determined that these games will be perfect. There can be no disruptions or trouble,” according to a Western security consultant who spoke with me when I was in Beijing earlier this year looking into the security planning for the Olympics. “There is tremendous ‘face’ at stake,” he said. “The Chinese want everyone to say these were the greatest Olympics ever. Anything less would be a humiliation.”
That means everything must run smoothly, without protests, disruptions, and certainly no terrorist outrages.
The government is drafting about 70,000 extra police and military personnel to cover Olympic sites, upgrading security at the Beijing airport and the city’s subway system, and tightening already strict controls on political activity.
China’s secretive security agencies have reached out to U.S., German, and Israeli agencies for advice on Olympic security.
Assessments in advance of the Olympics revealed lapses at some critical locations, such as the country’s airports. As a result, new measures have been implemented. For example, as Zhang Zhi, deputy director general of the Beijing airport police, told China Economic Review the government is now “setting up a security zone to prevent anyone from taking shots at aircraft as they take off and land. In addition, background checks are being conducted on all airport employees.”
The Olympics led to even more movement of security hardware and service vendors into China. The security market was already worth about $10 billion a year and growing 20 percent annually, but the Olympics have given companies a lucrative one-off opportunity. The government has spent around $6.5 billion on security for the Olympics, according to industry estimates . This money is being used to create one of the most elaborate and technologically advanced security and surveillance systems in the world.
But the Olympics also present a number of unexpected challenges as well, because China presents such a large number of unusual risks.
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.
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.
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.
Health and Safety
Security directors expect to spend their time dealing with high-probability, low-risk problems such as illness and injuries, lost documents and credit cards, or the occasional arrest for drunken or disorderly behavior. Road accidents, foul air, and Beijing’s extreme summer heat are the main threats to visitors and residents alike. “People drive like maniacs so you have got to have trained drivers if you are going out of the city,” says Beatty.
This will be the first time a developing country has hosted an Olympic event since Mexico in 1968. China has spent heavily on upgrading its transportation, health, and communications infrastructure, but the infrastructure is still precarious even inside the main cities.
English-speaking physicians and modern ambulances are all in short supply; but there shouldn’t be any problem as long as China doesn’t face a major emergency during the games.
Providers like International SOS have modern facilities in Beijing and can medically evacuate acute cases if necessary. “We expect a doubling in the number of [medical] cases during the Olympics,” says Williams. “We’re expecting a lot more dental cases, and a lot more cases of heat stroke, respiratory problems, fractures, and sprains.”
International SOS has moved to modern new facilities in downtown Beijing, stockpiled medication, and given clients smart cards to get quick access to its 24-hour medical center. “We’ve been working with clients on security. We are activating more charter [ambulance] aircraft to get people to centers of medical excellence.”
But China may struggle to cope with anything more serious. Supplies of safe blood might run out quickly, especially for RH-negative blood, which is relatively rare in China. Also, China is a breeding ground for infectious diseases like SARS and avian flu. An epidemic is unlikely, but if one were to break out, it would quickly overload China’s health system.
“How do you evacuate a city the size of Beijing? The answer is you can’t. Everyone will have to hunker down in a hotel room and wait it out,” says Wilcox. The wait might be a long one, since the home countries of infected travelers might not allow them back in immediately.
Yet China has shown that it can deal with emergencies well. Military and emergency services responded promptly and efficiently to this year’s Chengdu earthquake.
There will be a surge in demand for bandwidth and telecom capacity during the games. China has expanded these services, but teething problems and occasional breakdowns should be expected. Nokia’s Wang, a former police officer with close links to the PSB, thinks Internet and telecommunications networks will be more at risk from cyberattacks during the Olympics.
Also, China is a hotbed of piracy and industrial espionage. Business travelers will need to secure cell phones and laptops carefully to prevent them from being loaded with malware. Computers left in hotel rooms in China in the past have been infected with keyloggers, Trojans, and other more exotic eavesdropping programs.
Big U.S. and European vendors, such as Honeywell, GE Security, and Siemens have ramped up sales ahead of the Olympics. New equipment from GE Security installed at Beijing’s new airport terminal can detect explosives in seconds, and its VisioWave, IP-based analytic CCTV system will monitor Beijing’s national convention center and the Olympics media center.
Though competition from local companies for these contracts is fierce, exposure at the Olympics has helped U.S. companies. “Reliability is at the top of the list of requirements [for the Olympics],” says J.J. Caine, head of sales at Vicon, a CCTV manufacturer that subcontracts to Honeywell. “We had to offer a special price to be competitive in China for the Olympics, because there are hundreds of Chinese companies offering lower prices.”
News reports say that some American security products sold in China may violate sanctions imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and raised concern that the equipment would be used against dissidents.
The New York Times reported that Honeywell is working with China’s police to install a complex computer system to monitor CCTV networks in a busy Beijing district where Olympic sites are located. United Technologies is helping the southeastern city of Guangzhou to begin installing a planned citywide network of 250,000 cameras for the 2010 Asian Games.
The Olympics fit into a wider government security strategy, called Peaceful Cities, to wire China’s cities with CCTV cameras. Beijing and Shanghai will have 250,000-300,000 cameras each; smaller cities would have 1,000-5,000 cameras each. The government invested $937 million to install camera networks in 26 cities last year, according to the Security Industry Association.
As with any Olympics, once the games are on, the crowds will hold their collective breadth as they hope their country or their favorite competitor takes home the gold—and security professionals will hold their collective breadth hoping that no incident occurs that takes attention away from the good times.
John Barham is a senior editor with Security Management magazine.