Surveillance Clamp-down in Beijing

By: kanu on 7 August 2008
Posted in China, Asia, Surveillance

Only one day before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games begin….and we’re not the only ones to notice.

The Chinese government has spread a stifling net of surveillance around the capital to allegedly ensure that the Olympics remain “safe”. This comes as no surprise to onlookers as China has, from the very start, tried to guarantee a secure event. However, this clampdown has generated greater controversy than previous reported surveillance measures. The New York Times reports:

"Officials are being accused of transforming the capital into a fortress; surface-to-air missiles take aim at the sky above the Olympic stadiums, surveillance cameras are mounted on light poles scan sidewalks and police officers are searching thousands of cars and trucks entering the city."

However, the government defends itself by warning that terrorism is a constant threat to the county and event, “particularly from Muslim separatist groups in the Xinjiang region of western China”. On Monday morning, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that 16 policemen were killed and 16 others injured when rioters threw two grenades after driving into a border patrol police station near Kashgar in the remote western part of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Two reporters from the Japanese Kyodo News Agency were dragged away from the scene and beaten, suffering light injuries, while the Reuters correspondent chased from the scene by “baton-wielding policemen.”

And China’s surveillance isn’t just limited to the streets; it is suspected that Internet surveillance continues as before. Although rumors do fly about certain search engines, in certain places, being able to escape the surveillance radar, the majority of domestic search engines and content providers are being tightly regulated by the government.

One of the most traditional methods of surveillance where designated Chinese citizens serve as neighborhood watchdogs, has been expanded. Thousands of middle-age to elderly citizens of the capital can be observed wearing red armbands and Yanjing Beer-sponsored t-shirts pronouncing their role as “public order volunteer,” patrolling their areas for signs of any suspicious people and/or events.

And so the question arises- are these measures called for?

Li Wei, a counterterrorism expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations recently stated in the New York Times, “I believe that Beijing’s Olympics are now facing real threats from terrorist attacks.”

“I think the Olympics are the most important international sports event in four years,” he said, “and it’s the biggest focus of the international media in four years, so this might draw some attention from terrorist groups.”

Experts on terrorism locally and internationally claim that the biggest threat to the Olympics will most likely come from the western province of Xinjiang and say that the extensive preparations for these Olympics are among the most extensive of any in the past.
There is, however, a flip side. Human rights advocates accuse the government of over-emphasing the threat from terrorists in order to crack down on ethnic minority groups, dissident organizations and other individuals. China has reportedly spent over 6 billion USD on security in Beijing and has installed about 300,000 surveillance cameras that will remain in place after the Games.

Nor are athletes and other official visitors exempt. All telephone communications of European delegations, athletes and journalists will reportedly be under constant surveillance during the Games, through the use of equipment produced and deployed by companies such as Ericsson and Nokia Siemens and surveillance methods developed at the European Telecom Standards Institute. While actual phone conversations will not be monitored, traffic data analysis will track the caller, recipient, location and time of calls.

A moderate threat has now been elevated either because, or under the pretext of, the Olympics.