Joshua Keating
Foreign Policy
April 9, 2008

If you’ve been following the Olympic flame’s troubled progess (it braves hostile crowds in San Francisco today), you’ve no doubt noticed the phalanx of Chinese guards in blue track suits, baseball caps, and fanny packs who follow it everywhere. As Der Spiegel‘s Alexander Schwabe reports, the guards are just as sinister as you might imagine:

The agents are described as "employees of the Beijing Organizing Committee," which founded a "flame protection squad" in August 2007. […]

According to Chinese media, the agents are members of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, which in China is responsible for fighting unrest and maintaining internal stability. Tens of thousands of the "Wujing," as the People’s Armed Police are called in Chinese, recently took part in crackdowns against demonstrators in Tibet and neighboring regions.

"These men, chosen from around the country, are each tall and large and are eminently talented and powerful," the squad’s leader Zhao Si was quoted as saying. "Their outstanding physical quality is not in the slightest inferior to that of specialized athletes."

They’re also racking up an impressive list of complaints from protesters as well as relay organizers for their rude conduct and heavy-handed tactics. In some cases they’ve even gotten into fights with local police. Sebastian Coe, the head of Britain’s organizing comittee, repeatedly described them as "thugs" to the media. Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently stated that the guards would not be welcome for the Australian portion of the relay.

Eighty-five thousand miles never felt so long.

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