BEIJING (Reuters) - Banners are banned, flags restricted and even t-shirts will be scrutinized during Beijing’s Olympic Games.
But the list of grievances against host China from both its own citizens and activists abroad remains as long as ever, raising the question of how an authoritarian state will respond to protests when the eyes of the world are on it.
“They’re caught in between their desire to prevent all incidents and their ability not to appear to be going overboard at the same time,” said Scott Harrison, managing director of Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a risk consultancy.
Many suspect the prospect for large-scale protest in the capital is slim.
China has mobilized a 100,000-strong security force to monitor the Games, a team that includes police, the paramilitary People’s Armed Police and the People’s Liberation Army, supplemented by volunteer and private security.
Some 300,000 surveillance cameras will also keep watch over the city and helicopters will be circling overhead.
What is more probable than mass demonstrations are flash protests, in which a small group unfurls a banner briefly, before likely being overwhelmed by security forces.
In that case, if the group in question are not Chinese citizens, analysts say China is likely to react simply by removing them from the country as quickly as possible.
“Straight to the airport, I think that’s what would happen,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.
Anti-China demonstrations dogged the international leg of the torch relay earlier this year, with thousands pouring onto the streets of London, Paris and San Francisco to protest against China’s crackdown in Tibet.
Still, what if the group involved are athletes? What if they are Chinese? In those cases, the response would be less predictable.
Many think China’s own citizens are less likely to be involved, not because they are without grievances, but because of the huge patriotism that is accompanying the Games, meaning such demonstrations would be unlikely to win sympathy from the Chinese public.
The exception, though, could be Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned in China which shocked authorities when 10,000 of its members besieged the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in a 1999 dawn protest.
“They look like everybody else. They coordinate very well. They can use text messages to spontaneously show up at any time or place,” said one foreign analyst who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“I don’t think the police can coordinate to go after them,” he said.
They are also among the groups whose suppression in China is so great they may feel they have nothing left to lose by risking the consequences of a demonstration during the Olympics.
Liu Jing, a vice minister of public security who took the lead in cracking down on Falun Gong, is directing the government’s “coordination team” on Olympics security.
The group overseeing measures also includes top security tsar Zhou Yongkang and the head of Beijing’s public security bureau, Ma Zhenchuan.
Even if the massive police presence mitigates against the possibility of large-scale protests in the capital, should demonstrators defy the odds, there are worrying precedents for the handling of such gatherings. Memories of the military crackdown on student demonstrators on Tiananmen Square in 1989 still loom large.
But analysts say China’s policing since then has become more sophisticated, and with the sheer numbers of security forces being deployed, the prospect of having to break up a demonstration of a similar scale highly unlikely.
“I think they’re probably pretty disciplined. They don’t want to see a bunch of police or military officers overreact and crack heads,” said Harrison.
What is more probable than mass protest in the heavily policed capital is the prospect of a spontaneous, unrelated demonstrations in the countryside such as the riot in the southwestern province of Guizhou in June, when thousands torched police and government buildings.
It was just one of thousands of protests that happen every year across the vast country, often triggered by minor incidents but stemming from corruption and China’s yawning rich-poor gap.
The Guizhou protest, sparked by allegations of a cover-up in a girl’s death, led Chinese authorities to launch a nationwide campaign to defuse such “mass incidents” ahead of the Games.
By their very nature though, such protests are spontaneous and unpredictable.
And if they happen during the Olympics, they will leave Chinese forces in a quandary over whether to crack down quickly and risk condemnation, or let them play out and risk embarrassing attention to social discontent.
“They’ll err on the side of clamping down,” said one Western diplomat.
Others expressed more confidence that China has learned to better handle such riots, usually by containing the incident and then sending in huge police reinforcements.
“Given the trend of protest policing in past years and the highly exposed nature of the Olympics, Beijing will be much more prone to using peaceful methods to control mass protests during the Games,” wrote Chen Yali in the latest issue of the journal China Security.
Instead, rights activists say the bigger concern, in terms of risk to participants in any demonstration during the Olympics period, is the specter of a protest among either ethnic Tibetans or Uighurs in the country’s restive western border regions.
“What we are most worried about is the potential consequences of protests in Tibet and Xinjiang, where the authorities might react in a way that is disproportionate,” said Bequelin.
Whether or not those groups would gamble that the attention of millions of Olympics watchers is worth the risk to their safety and the reputation of their cause is an open question.
And, with a myriad of grievances and ever more forms of expressing them, whether and what kind of protests mark the Beijing Games is also anyone’s guess.
“No matter how the police prepare, anything can happen during the Olympics,” wrote Chen.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)