Insecure security

China's tight grip might be at odds with the Olympic ideal of togetherness, but it's been building high walls for centuries.

Published August 11, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

These are the most secure Olympics, and the most insecure.

Police on every corner, surveillance cameras everywhere, overpasses cordoned off, listening devices planted in taxis, sniffing dogs, metal detectors and new electric fences all around. In three days, I've already been frisked enough times to feel half the nation is familiar with the sort of chewing gum sticks crumpled in my front pocket.

Still, this hasn't been enough to prevent Chinese leaders' worst nightmare: the killing on Day 1 at a popular tourist attraction of an American CEO and prominent Christian, father-in-law of the current Olympic volleyball coach and father of a former Olympic athlete who watched his death by stabbing.

It also hasn't prevented several new items like this, reported with a familiar twist in Sunday's government-run China Daily: "Chinese people condemned and protested against five foreigners for fomenting 'Tibetan independence' at Tiananmen Square yesterday noon. The five were then taken away by Beijing police."

All of this isn't a product of tensions over Tibet, of "communism," or of post 9/11 Muslim threats. Anyone who bothers to look at the core old city of Beijing, or what's left of it, will find a city distinguished by its high blood-red walls around palaces and centers of powers, the gigantic gates, thick doors and guarded entries everywhere. This is actually the most fascinating aspect of Beijing's design -- a city that gave importance to the exact distance one lived from the throne of the Forbidden City.

And the Communist era, despite its many campaigns against class privilege, only increased the importance of access, of "back door" methods to enter the critical compounds, added to the barriers between the rulers and ruled, the protected and the unprotected. Today, as wondrous all-glass office towers rise, they are usually built back from the street, protected by a traditional courtyard, and heavily patrolled gates at the front.

Hundreds of mute guards stand vigil all-night along embassy row. Even China's university students seek knowledge within strictly gated campuses. Along with paper and gunpowder, the Chinese surely invented the security guard.

And one would have to be an idiot not to recognize that all this might prove at odds with the so-called Olympic "dream" of mankind united in peace. Perhaps I'm a bit spoiled from having attended the 1988 games in Seoul, Korea, where, despite a fragile transition from dictatorship to democratic rule and huge protests in the street, fans had plenty of open, accessible areas to swap souvenir pins and stories.

I wandered freely in and around the Athletes Village and it was no problem waiting to speak with some exiting young Olympians or get their autographs. Likewise in Los Angeles in 1984, there were few bans or barriers and the free mingling of people the world over was far more memorable than any sporting memories (like turning my head toward a hot dog vendor and missing the infamous fall of distance runner Mary Decker).

So this time, I figured that I could naively head toward the area labeled as Beijing's "Olympic Green." But asking the best way to get to the large space laid out between Bird's Nest Stadium, the "Water Cube" Aquatic Center and a newly-planted Forest Park, I was summarily told that the low-grade pass hanging around my neck simply wouldn't get me in.

When I persisted and phoned an official at the larger Main Press Center, she tried to mollify me by offering to send me a fax listing all the parks in Beijing where journalists were or were not allowed to get their feet wet. Was it possible that the village "green" staging an event for all mankind was reserved solely for VIPs? I had to see for myself, as my taxi driver started circling in vain around the area and cursing at the numerous roadblocks that thwarted his route.

With a shrug, he dropped me at a dead end enforced by another line of soldiers. Crossing the street, I found myself in a large untended parking lot, separated from the Bird's Nest by the untidy litter and lumber of unfinished construction, a dozen or so Quonset huts and high fencing. As the dusk approached, and the Olympic torch blazing atop the stadium grew fiercer and more tantalizingly close, thousands of ordinary families came to pose before the landmark.

For an hour or so, I amused myself by taking my own snapshots of their orgy of snapshots. When I finally got someone to record me for posterity, he managed to come up with the exact angle to make it look like the Olympic torch was emerging directly from the top of my head -- or seemed to show my hair on fire.

At dark, I followed the crowds toward the main entrance to the green, where sniffing German shepherd dogs drew a large crowd and massive signs invited "the little and the pregnant" to special entry points and warned against trying to sneak radioactive materials or "crossbows" into the stadium. Here, too, a guard confirmed that my status wasn't high enough to enjoy the various corporate tents stationed within. In the meantime, it was back to the parking lot for me. This wasn't the Olympic Green but the Olympic Gray.

Perhaps all Olympics from now will have to be like this, given the endless terror alerts. For the moment, anyway, the destruction of the last vestiges of Olympic solidarity didn't seem quite so important as the shocking stabbing of  Todd Bachman on a balcony of the ancient Drum Tower, but half a mile from the secured confines from where I am composing these words.

However, what seems most remarkable about the whole incident is how efficiently it has been swept under Beijing's rug. As far as I know, the murder was barely reported on television -- the Beijingers I met yesterday had certainly not heard about it -- and warranted a small Page 5 notice in the China Daily, buried behind headlines of China's first gold medals. The identity of the victim was not revealed and neither was much about the attacker beyond his name.

It is highly probable that not much else will ever be known, since authorities delayed reporting the crime until they had entirely cleaned up the area and sent away all possible police or local witnesses that Western reporters could have interviewed. Undoubtedly, one of the government surveillance cameras must have caught the attack.

As for the motives, "random crazy" will have to do for now -- though every Chinese person to whom I spoke called it a set-up by Muslim organizations bent on embarrassing China and every Western person living in China swore that this was but the natural outgrowth of a relentless anti-Western hysteria tied to the national goal of gaining more medals than the bullying United States.

A statement that Bachman and his family were wearing nothing to identify them as Americans seems highly suspect, in a town where almost everyone has some kind of pass hanging around their necks.

In any case, the police overkill at these Games isn't meant mainly at protecting foreigners from locals, or locals from a few human rights crazies. It's to prevent the Chinese people themselves from rising up to protest that the high walls are here, as they have been for eternity.

By John Krich

John Krich has been covering China for 20 years, most recently as the Asian Wall St Journal's main food/sports/culture writer. He's the author of "El Beisbol," "Won Ton Lust" and other literary travelogues.

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