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China to stifle pre-Olympics 'hostile forces'

London Telegraph | March 21, 2007
Richard Spencer

China's most senior policeman insisted yesterday that tighter controls were needed to stop next year's Olympic Games being disrupted by "hostile forces", including foreigners.

When Beijing was awarded the Games six years ago, the International Olympic Committee said the controversial decision would help to bring greater freedom to China's politics.

But since then, despite changes in the country forced on it by globalisation and the internet, there has been a crackdown on political opposition.

In the latest in a series of attempts to play down the chances of political liberalisation, Zhou Yongkang, the minister for public security, said police should "defend political and social stability".

"We must strike hard at hostile forces both in and outside the nation," he said in a speech given on Monday and published in the state media yesterday. He went on to give a list of those the state now regards as its principal enemies.

These included regular targets such as Falun Gong, the religious cult banned by Beijing whose past record of organising sit-down protests triggers particular fear in the authorities, and "splitism and religious extremism".

This is a catch-all phrase for anyone supporting independence or greater autonomy for Tibet, Xinjiang, or Taiwan. The government fears that free Tibet campaigners in particular could use the Games as an opportunity to boost international sympathy for their cause.

Tibetan activists, and representatives of the Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic group that lives in Xinjiang, are regularly harassed and jailed, with well-documented allegations of torture.

The reference to "hostile forces outside the nation" may refer to overseas supporters of these groups.

But the government has also focused in the past two years on the role that international human rights and pro-democracy organisations played in "colour revolutions" in eastern Europe and Central Asia.

"We must firmly grasp the changes developing in the international and domestic situation," Mr Zhou said.

The IOC awarded Beijing the Games in 2001 and said then that it would provide an opportunity to improve human rights.

Since then, websites have given a voice to individuals' complaints about official corruption and social problems such as inequality, while in accordance with IOC demands, heavy restrictions on reporting by foreign journalists were lifted on Jan 1.

Newspapers and official spokesmen are also quicker to respond to international media and incidents that might show the authorities in a poor light.

But the government is keen to insist that there is no chance of an end to single-party dictatorship. It is nervous of the example set by neighbouring South Korea, whose military dictatorship was forced to reintroduce democracy after a series of demonstrations in the run-up to the 1988 Games in Seoul.

It also wants to ensure that dissidents, human rights activists and other pressure groups inside the country know that there are limits to how far they can push for greater freedoms just because they know the outside world is watching.

"There's no doubt that activists in China are increasingly aware of the fact that the Olympics gives them an opportunity to gain more space, to push the envelope precisely because they will be protected by this intense spotlight," said Nicholas Becquelin of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.

"From the police perspective, this is essentially a prevention exercise, and they will leave no stone unturned."

He predicted that there would be more attempts to bring China into line with "international norms" on issues that are controversial overseas, such as the reeducation through labour system, a form of imprisonment without trial.

But Luo Gan, Mr Zhou's boss as the politburo member responsible for law and order, has stressed the priority given to maintaining "stability". In a speech last month he said the re-education through labour system should be "improved" and not scrapped.

While Mr Zhou's concern is for serious political opposition, local authorities are focusing on what they regard as blights on the city.

They are concerned to clear out so-called "petitioners' villages", slum areas occupied by thousands of aggrieved people from the provinces hoping to air their grievances in the city.

Last month, Beijing also announced that beggars, unlicensed taxis and distributors of advertising flyers would be stopped from coming inside the second ring road prior to the Games.

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