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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

China: Protests and Beijing's Olympic Conundrum

Stratfor: August 07, 2007 17 38 GMT


A brief demonstration by representatives of Reporters Without Borders in Beijing on Aug. 6 gave shape to the Chinese government's concerns a year before the 2008 Summer Olympics. Chinese officials, security forces and researchers have been dreading the start of high-profile protests and demonstrations in the run-up to the Olympics. Numerous interest groups see the games as a perfect time to gain publicity and leverage in pressing their causes to, or against, the Chinese government. As Beijing scrambles to get a grip on just how big the problem could get, China's leaders are finding their options are extremely limited.


Four representatives of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) staged a brief demonstration and an unauthorized press conference in Beijing on Aug. 6 outside the offices of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, coinciding with the visit of International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge to the Chinese capital. The four wore T-shirts depicting the Olympic rings made out of handcuffs, accused Beijing of reneging on promises about media freedom and called on Beijing to free detained journalists, activists and Internet users. The RSF representatives returned to their hotel after the event, but journalists covering the press conference, held on a pedestrian overpass, were detained for some two hours and questioned in a nearby parking lot before being released.

For Beijing, this is just the sort of demonstration and public attention it is working so hard to avoid. The Chinese government has taken several preventative measures to try to improve its image in the years leading up to the Olympics. These have included steps such as promising freer media access, curtailing donations of executed prisoners' organs, and working behind the scenes with foreign academics, researchers, government officials and corporations to gain public support for China and help manage its image. But the Chinese government is far from complying with all its detractors' demands, and has little interest in following many of their demands anyway.

For the Communist Party of China (CPC), many of the demands are seen as blatant attempts to undermine CPC rule (quite a few actually are). Beijing often feels it needs more time and a gradual approach in order to manage the domestic repercussions of change, even regarding the demands it is willing to implement (or interested in implementing). With Beijing's unwillingness or inability to meet all the demands from various nongovernmental organizations and interest groups, China's government and security forces are looking for other ways to mitigate the impact of protests and demonstrations.

Though Beijing repeatedly has warned that potential militant acts by Xinjiang separatists are a major threat to the Olympics -- and justification for a massive increase in security including the use of People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops to secure Beijing and surrounding areas and other Olympic venues -- one of the government's biggest fears long has been the ability of various groups (ranging from Amnesty International to the Falun Gong to Taiwanese intelligence) to disrupt the games or shift international attention away from the Olympics to China's political and social system. Officials particularly fear the self-immolation of a Falun Gong protester during the Olympics, for example.

But this public relations concern is compounded by a deeper fear: the spread of anti-government ideas and activities to the Chinese themselves. Beijing is struggling with an uncontrolled (and potentially uncontrollable) economy. Social pressures are building, expectations are rising and moves to streamline the economy and regain central guidance if not control over economic and social policies are stirring opposition from provincial and local leaders, who see their own area's interests as much more significant and relevant. Though there is an expectation that China's masses will be burning with nationalism during the Olympics (an assumption yet to be proven), the CPC fears "foreign elements" will use the Olympics to stir anti-government protesters in China, or will passively inspire Chinese groups to stage demonstrations or protests themselves.

But the problem for China's leaders is that no matter how big their concern, they have few viable options to deal with the threat. Beijing's first step is to try to limit the number of potentially disruptive individuals entering China. This will include increased scrutiny of visas and changed visa fees -- as well as identification of journalists who might write negative reports on Chinese governmental or social policies during the Olympics and of groups or group members who might plan protests or other disruptions of the Olympics. Beijing is seeking foreign research assistance in compiling the list of potential agitators, but the effort will fall far short of identifying everyone. Even when it does identify someone, blocking access to China simply gives the activist more proof that Beijing is a repressive regime.

And this is the catch-22 for China's leaders. Blocking entry to China, preventing demonstrations, or arresting protesters and activists all bolster the activists' claims against the Chinese government, giving them plenty of media attention and pictures of Chinese security forces dragging them away. The training many activists have undergone and the methods they have employed in campaigns around the world mean they are quite skilled at making it extremely difficult for the security forces to hush up or easily remove them from the scene. But if Beijing allows the demonstrations to take place, it risks both the public relations damage and the potential that activists could be inspired by the lack of response -- prompting them to hold even larger and longer rallies. This also could begin attracting Chinese activists, paving the way for another Tiananmen Square -- this time with journalists from the world over in town for the Olympic games.

The RSF press conference was only a small, early taste of what Beijing can expect with increasing frequency and scope in the coming year. And if the government response to this small demonstration is any indication, Chinese officials have yet to find a new way to deal with such incidents that does not put the Chinese government in a bad light or involve taking a big gamble on its own social control.

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