Security blanket

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2008, 12:00am

On its three-month relay through major mainland cities, the Olympic torch is being greeted with protest-free celebrations, in contrast to its reception in Europe, the US and most of the Asian countries it travelled through.

Organisers of some overseas legs had to change or curtail relay routes, sometimes at the last minute; those in London, Paris and San Francisco were disrupted, and in the French capital the torch was extinguished. The disturbances also shed light on the much publicised torch attendants, 30 blue-clad paramilitary police officers from Beijing who ran next to the torch bearers and symbolised the importance Beijing placed on security.

For Beijing, the Olympics is China's long-awaited opportunity to showcase its modernisation and development. It has sent a strong message of zero tolerance for any attempt to undermine the event by extinguishing the Olympic flame, hacking into the Games computer network or disrupting proceedings in any other way.

The authorities have also pledged a whopping US$300 million and the deployment of more than 90,000 law enforcement officers and volunteers to ensure the Games are safe and secure.

'Beijing's Olympic Games has inherited the legacy of recent Games in terms of high-security measures, so we began at a very high standard,' said Ma Xin , a Beijing security expert who is one of 20 official advisers on the Beijing Games.

'We have state-of-the-art equipment and have absorbed experiences from other countries. The least you can say is that security measures for the Beijing Olympics are world-class.'

As part of its preparations, the central government has devised 52 security plans and more than 500 smaller contingency plans relating to the operation of the Olympic venues, anti-terrorist work and information collection. But the prospect of terrorist attacks, relatively new on the mainland, has presented Beijing with a new challenge in the final months before the Games' opening ceremony.

The Ministry of Public Security and Interpol last month warned that the Beijing Games faced a 'real threat' from terrorism.

The warning came after the ministry announced in early April that it had foiled attacks by groups connected with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which reportedly wanted to use toxic and explosive materials in hotels and to kidnap foreigners - foreign journalists, tourists and Olympic athletes - during the Games.

The disclosure came a month after Beijing said it had prevented a terrorist attack by a 19-year-old Uygur woman on a flight from Urumqi to Beijing.

Dr Ma said the close shaves had helped prepare the authorities for the threat of terrorist attacks. He said Beijing's plans included preparation for a variety of threats, including an attack on the mainland by another country during the Games, and that security planning was under way even before Games facilities were built. 'Even each load of earth taken in and out of the construction sites had to be registered,' he said. 'When we were drafting anti-terrorist plans, we took into consideration terror attacks such as the ones by groups fighting for independence for Xinjiang and Tibet. We can't say we can tackle all measures by terrorists, but we can say the strengthened security inspection measures will not give them a chance.'

Vice-Minister of Public Security Liu Jing told an international forum on Olympic security late last month that Beijing had 'finished all the security measures to fight terror attacks'.

Tian Yixiang , director of the People's Liberation Army command team for Olympic security work, said the army was confident of ensuring a safe Games. He said the PLA had been ordered to ensure airspace safety in Beijing and co-host cities, maintain marine safety for venues in coastal areas, prevent potential terrorist attacks and dispose of any explosives, and organise emergency rescue and disaster relief. 'Anti-terrorism is our priority and preventing potential nuclear, biological or chemical attacks are the most difficult,' said Senior Colonel Tian.

With less than three months until the opening of the Games, Beijing has made no attempt to hide the tighter security that has blanketed the capital.

Travel authorities acted swiftly after the hijacking incident was exposed and banned liquids and lighters on passenger flights. Liquids will be banned from the mail while the Games are on. Beijing police have tightened scrutiny of foreigners' passports and residency permits, and foreign businesspeople have complained about the difficulty of renewing visas.

A report by Time magazine offered a glimpse of just how twitchy Beijing security officials had become. The Hash House Harriers in the city, a social running group that meets regularly for a jog and a few beers, recently had seven of its runners detained by police after an 8km run, on suspicion that they were involved in a terrorist plot. Police suspected the baking flour the runners used to mark their route was a toxic powder. They were eventually released after being interviewed for several hours while police conducted forensic tests on the flour.

The city has established an 'invisible crime-prevention net' for the Games, starting with hundreds of thousands of cameras that cover every corner of the capital, including more than 4,000 in the Olympic Park, home to the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Centre (the Water Cube).

'All these cameras are connected to the Beijing Olympics security command centre and, when necessary, will be shown on the big screen at the centre. It's one of the most advanced CCTV networks in the world,' said Dr Ma.

A data collection system designed by China Electronic Technology Group will be able to collect information on important guests, security force members and the location of anyone who carries a mobile phone in the park.

'The high security has to do with experiences and lessons of past Games,' said Dr Ma. 'But one true advantage of China is that we have huge people power.'

In addition to 40,000 policemen, 27,500 armed police officers, 10,000 security guards and 300 members of the anti-terrorist Snow Leopard Commando, Beijing has mobilised 15,000 volunteers and has its existing security network of senior citizens to draw on.

Elderly volunteers, with their red armbands, will stay vigilant and report on anything suspicious. Trusted retired government office workers have been hired temporarily to guard the social order, monitoring people queueing for tickets and going through X-ray scanners on subways.

According to a regulation on venue checks released at the end of March, the authorities will pay increased attention to details such as forbidding spectators from taking bottled drinks into the Games venues.

Drinks cannot be carried in to remove the risk of spectators throwing containers at athletes, and drink sponsors, who are authorised to have drink stands in the venues, have been advised to sell their drinks in paper cups rather than in bottles.

Banners and oversized flags have been banned because they may block other spectators' views.

Beijing, which traditionally has a tight security network because of its political prominence, will host most events. Shanghai, Qingdao , Tianjin , Qinhuangdao and Hong Kong will be hosting some of the competitions. Security in those cities had also been upgraded, said Dr Ma, and a co-ordination network established and tested.