Airports in several major mainland cities have been placed on the second-highest security alert level since Sunday amid rumours of planned suicide attacks in the restive region of Xinjiang , where a high-level trade fair will be held this week.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is scheduled to attend the opening ceremony of the trade fair in Urumqi, the region's capital, and give a speech, according to a statement from Chief Executive's Office yesterday.
Passengers at the airports in Beijing, Shanghai, Zhengzhou, Kunming, Chengdu, Xian and throughout Xinjiang were told to arrive at the airports at least two to three hours before departure without being given any explanations for tightened security measures, airport officials said.
The security checks, also adopted for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the World Expo in Shanghai last year, mean more passengers could be told to remove their shoes and belts and at least half of passengers might have their luggage searched.
Some passengers complained that their journeys were affected because of the extended security checks. Fu Xinghua , director of Zero2IPO Research, said on her microblog that she missed her flight in Beijing on Sunday. She said the security arrangements were chaotic and there were many passengers waiting at counters to return tickets.
A customer service officer at Beijing Capital International Airport said yesterday that passengers on both domestic and international flights had been affected since Sunday night. A staff member at Zhengzhou airport in Henan said only those travelling to Urumqi and Hami in Xinjiang were subject to tighter security checks.
A security guard at Beijing's airport said they had received an order to boost security measures to the Olympic level at 2am on Sunday, but the level went back to the normal for international flights yesterday. A passenger travelling from Beijing to Hong Kong said his journey was smooth, without a long queue in the security check area.
Shanghai's airport authorities said the airports in Hongqiao and Pudong would continue the tightened security arrangements until September 7 and that more security check counters had been opened to shorten queuing time, Xinhua reported.
Officials at the airports and the Civil Aviation Administration of China declined to give reasons behind the tightened security, fuelling speculation on the internet that it was linked to a security threat in Xinjiang, which was hit by a wave of violent attacks in recent months.
Li Wei, director of the Centre for Counterterrorism Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said the authorities may have obtained intelligence suggesting terrorists were plotting attacks.
'The tightened security was implemented after a risk assessment by the authorities,' he said.
Internet users on microblogs claimed more than 10 passengers at Urumqi airport were found carrying knives intended for suicide attacks.
But Xinjiang officials denied that the security at the region's airports was due to potential terror attacks, instead saying they needed to ensure the smooth running of the China-Eurasia Expo in Urumqi from Thursday to next Monday. Top officials from countries, like Pakistan, Turkey and Kyrgyzstan will attend the expo.
'There are many visitors in Urumqi because of the expo, and we need to ensure their safety,' Xinjiang government spokeswoman Hou Hanmin said.