Beijing: Security Preparations for 2008 Olympics Going Smoothly

BEIJING_Beijing's normally secretive police provided a glimpse Friday into security preparations for the 2008 Olympics, staging riot-control demonstrations by a special tactical unit and outlining plans to make venues safe.

In the foreign media's first-ever tour of a police training base south of Beijing, officials and an introductory video said that expert teams have pored over the technical standards of each sporting venue and analyzed potential threats, terrorism in particular.

To demonstrate the police's growing capabilities, members of a 150-person tactical unit performed a series of drills. Police in riot gear advanced across the parade ground amid blue and pink smoke. Trained German shepherds attacked fleeing miscreants. The highlight was the breakup of a hostage-taking, when police crashed through the windows of a three-story concrete tower.

The unusual display of openness marked a departure for the Beijing Public Security Bureau, which has provided little public information about security preparations. Police and city officials said the event was intended to show the city's commitment to stage a safe, successful Olympics and put participating countries and their athletic teams at ease.

"We want people to feel safe even before they come to Beijing," city police chief Ma Zhenchuan told reporters.

But unlike last summer's Games in Athens or the post-September 11 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, USA., security in Beijing is not as prominent a concern for the international community. Though no longer a totalitarian state, communist-run China remains an authoritarian one, with an extensive security apparatus that can be quickly mobilized.

In such an environment, one worry is that Beijing may suffer from too much policing, not too little. Organizers of previous Olympics consulted by Beijing organizers have said that excessive policing might sap the Games of spontaneity, creating a public-image problem for China.

Chinese security experts tasked with preparing contingency plans for the games said on condition of anonymity that they are studying the potential for domestic critics of the regime to disrupt the Olympics. Their plans have focused on members of the suppressed Falun Gong spiritual movement and ethnic Muslims agitating for an independent homeland in China's Central Asian buffer province of Xinjiang.

Under such circumstances, Chinese leaders are likely to flood Beijing with police rather than risk a disruption, said a former Chinese military officer who runs a consulting company and spoke on condition on of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his business.

Ma, the police chief, suggested that security officials were mindful of these pitfalls in their planning and said that Beijing is trying to learn from the experience of other Olympic host cities.

"We deeply realize that the Olympics, as an important international event, must be held in an open environment," Ma said.

Yet the tensions between the desire for openness and the tendency for heavy-handed security were evident at Friday's exhibition at the Police Patrol Brigade's Xihongmen Base. Asked what would happen if a Falun Gong or other protest occurred during the Games, Xue Xiaoming, a vice commander of the tactical unit said, "We will allow demonstrations within the law."

Xue did not elaborate, but under Chinese regulations, police must issue permits for demonstrations, and they rarely do.

On a practical level, Beijing also hopes to get ample help from abroad, Ma said. Members of the special unit have studied tactics in Germany and South Korea, and Beijing wants to invite equipment and other specialists to work as security consultants, said Ma and Xue.

In the coming months, security planners will concentrate on improving a command and communications system and setting up an information-gathering network to blanket the city, Ma said. More combat exercises are in store for the police, and security checks on Olympic venues will be stepped up, he said.

"With only 986 days left until the 2008 Olympics, time is urgent and our work is strenuous," Ma said.

<<Associated Press WorldStream -- 11/28/05>>