On your left, friendly people with rifles
They’re ready for trouble at the 6th Armored Division Base outside Beijing, where four People’s Liberation Army colonels ticked off the top security threats facing the Summer Olympics for a group of foreign reporters Friday.
Muslim radicals from western China. “Separatists,” such as Tibetan organizations demanding greater independence from Beijing. And Falun Gong, a spiritual group banned in China as an “evil cult.” In that order.
These groups will “try every means to sabotage the Games,” said Col. Hu Changming, a spokesman for the National Defense Ministry.
The comments came during a rare media tour of a PLA base, where soldiers took photos of foreign reporters taking photos of soldiers, and officials tried to show a friendlier face of the world’s largest military force.
“You’ve come to our barracks to see; we have commanders answering your questions,” said Hu, pointing his finger for emphasis. “I think that demonstrates transparency.”
The PLA officers said China is well prepared for any group that tries to disrupt the Olympics. To protect venues and spectators, the nation has dispatched an estimated 100,000 armed police and soldiers, complemented by several hundred thousand “security volunteer” students and neighborhood snoops. The PLA has deployed 74 jets and 48 helicopters, and ringed the Olympic stadium with surface-to-air missiles as well as equipment designed to thwart a biological or chemical attack.
“Facing so many threats and interference, there will be no successful Games to speak of if we can’t ensure safety,” said Tian Yixiang, military director of the Olympics security command center.
“At the same time, we need to create a good atmosphere for the Games,” he added, addressing widespread concerns that China is going overboard with security arrangements in what some have already dubbed the “no-fun Olympics.”
Allowing foreign journalists onto the army base was an attempt to show that the secretive Chinese military can be more open to the outside world. As the four buses disgorged their load, a military band snapped to attention, bursting into a rendition of “The PLA March,” gold tubas and trumpets glistening in what passes for sunshine in China’s hazy capital.
Only one thing was missing: most of the soldiers.
“Where have all the soldiers and officers gone?” said Chen Xuewu, the division’s commander. “They’ve gone away to train. It’s a pity, but we can’t stop our training just for your visit.”
Critics acknowledge that China has legitimate security concerns. But many accuse authorities of exaggerating the danger in order to justify a crackdown on protesters.
PLA colonels declined to provide additional details on several recent incidents that the government blamed on radical groups in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. The region, which accounts for about one-sixth of Chinese territory, is home to 8.3 million Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority that has chafed at rule by China’s majority Han population.
Chinese authorities claim to have thwarted a bid to blow up an airliner en route from Xinjiang to Beijing in March, and to have cracked two Xinjiang terrorist groups that reportedly planned to disrupt the Olympics.
And questions remain over who may have engineered a rumored subway bombing in Beijing and two still-unexplained bombings on buses in Kunming last month.
But others downplayed the threat from Xinjiang radicals.
“I believe the Chinese government is well prepared,” Kurexi Maihesuti, vice chairman of the Xinjiang autonomous region, said at a separate news conference Friday. “So we have the ability to prevent such terrorist activities before they even start.”
Friday’s tour was aimed at showing off those preparations. Officers played a video with lots of dust, tanks, missiles and stuff blowing up, followed by a brief run through rooms apparently aimed at revealing the PLA’s softer side, including soldiers doing calligraphy or reading historical texts.
Then it was off to watch a simulated exercise in which troops conducted a tank battle on video screens in a hall entirely camouflaged, including the ceiling. The foreign TV reporters appeared to love this part, tripping over each other to do stand-up shots in front of the battle scenes.
When it came time to leave the simulation, the media guests had to be repeatedly prodded by the officers. Accustomed to soldiers who know how to follow orders, the officers apparently were weak in the cat-herding skills required to corral foreign journalists.
Finally it was on to parked tanks and armored personnel carriers, which several journalists clambered onto like kids on a jungle gym before the whole disorganized crew boarded the buses.
“Today is full of joy,” spokesman Hu said animatedly in summation. “Today is PLA Day.”