Expect a China crackdown, experts say

Times Staff Writer

In the midst of this month’s unrest in Tibet, Cub Scout Pack 3944 in Beijing was invited to round the bases and meet their baseball idols, the Dodgers, when they came for the first-ever major league game played in China.

Shortly before the first pitch, however, Chinese police told leaders of the expatriate pack that the deal was off. The apparent concern: that the boys might agitate for Tibetan independence.

As it prepares to hold the Olympics in August, China is on edge and isn’t likely to take any chances. Two weeks of unrest in its ethnic Tibetan region has further shaken the confidence of a government already nervous about criticism over its human rights record.


Analysts say they expect beefed-up surveillance in coming months of Chinese groups deemed troublemakers, including democracy advocates, religious groups and those who petition the government for justice. They also expect more intense vetting of inbound tourists, more scrutiny of Chinese sports crowds, more ID checks almost everywhere and heightened Internet and media controls as the Games approach.

Tibetan unrest “is going to have a very significant impact,” said Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at UC San Diego. “You can see from their reaction, they’re already fairly paranoid about security, and they’re basically going to cut back further on any type of risk.”

But even as it tightens its grip, Beijing will probably try to avoid having Olympic security become too draconian. “They’ll try and balance the amount of security and the need to keep their international reputation,” Cheung added.

Late last week, Beijing was reportedly considering a ban on live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square during the Olympics. And in a hint of the challenge ahead, a Tibet activist charged the podium Monday before being subdued as Beijing Olympics chief Liu Qi spoke at the start of the torch relay in Greece.

Also on Monday, ethnic Tibetan rioters in western China killed a policeman and injured “several others,” according to state media. And an unemployed Chinese dissident, Yang Chunlin, was sentenced to five years in jail on subversion charges after stating, during a land battle with developers, that human rights were more important than the Games.

China’s security apparatus is in apparent overdrive to compensate for failing to anticipate the wave of riots that spread throughout ethnic Tibetan areas after March 10, the anniversary of a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.


“This is a huge shock, that their intelligence could fail so badly,” said Tsering Shakya, a professor at the University of British Columbia. “It’s like 9/11 for them.”

Experts say China will be reviewing this crisis for years in search of lessons, amid broad-based fears inside the Communist Party that riots and public discontent could undermine monopoly rule.

“There’s going to be a very serious review of what went wrong,” said Murray Scot Tanner, a China security specialist formerly with the Rand Corp. “Someone’s head is likely to roll.”

Though China has given no public accounting of the security failures behind the riots that have rocked the Tibetan Autonomous Region and parts of neighboring Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, Western security and Tibet experts cite possible factors.

After late 2005, the communist hierarchy apparently decided that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, was behind the few remaining cases of Tibetan unrest and that the vast majority of Tibetans were happy to be part of China. This bias crept into the monitoring system, some say, allowing intelligence officials to overlook the frustration building among Tibetans over religious and cultural restrictions and wealth disparity.

“Security people should never get near ideology, it blinds them,” said Robbie Barnett, a professor at Columbia University, who draws a comparison to biased U.S. intelligence before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The Chinese were so keen on looking for evidence of the Dalai Lama, they may have missed other possibilities.”


Security agencies also apparently believed they would continue to face the same sort of small-scale protests they’d seen in recent years. They were caught by surprise when 300 monks protested, followed by large citizen riots in Lhasa.

Once the violence broke out, the unruly crowds were not quickly checked and grew bolder, experts said, which allowed protests to spread to neighboring cities and then rural areas.

“The paramilitary may have lacked the manpower initially to stop the rioting or was deployed at too many monasteries trying to keep the monks in,” said Dennis Blasko, a former military attache in Beijing.

As order has been slowly restored, Beijing has turned its attention to punishing the rioters, a signal to restive communities that unrest won’t be tolerated. Wanted lists have been compiled from closed-circuit TV cameras in Lhasa, from riot footage shot by undercover police and from Western news broadcasts, analysts said.

Though the Communist Party is concerned with its global reputation, its first priority remains domestic stability. In recent days, the propaganda ministry has fanned reports that show Tibetans attacking Chinese civilians and property. It has also highlighted “good” Tibetans who condemn the Dalai Lama and came to the rescue of the Han Chinese being attacked.

Within China, tightly controlled media coverage has largely ignored details of the crackdown or the root causes of Tibetans’ anger, and blamed foreigners for trying to mar China’s Olympic glory. Chinese officials say 19 people were killed in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital; outside groups put the figure as high as 140.


Authorities said last week that they had arrested at least 24 people and that an additional 170 had turned themselves in. Chinese interrogators are free to use various forms of leverage, analysts said, including the threat of job losses, detention, reeducation camp or prison. A focus of the questioning, they said, will be anything that supports the “Dalai clique” theory.

More informants will almost certainly be put in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and propaganda will be intensified; thousands inside and outside the religion will be forced to attend study sessions on core Communist Party ideology. “Organizations must be tightened up,” said He Husheng, a professor of party history at People’s University in Beijing.

With officials’ careers increasingly linked to the handling of unrest, Tibetan regional party boss Zhang Qingli has been busy amplifying Beijing’s directives, including a recent comparison of the Dalai Lama to a “wolf in a monk’s robe.”

The next five months will probably see authorities taking few chances. On March 16, a day after the Dodgers baseball flap, police limited Beijing’s first St. Patrick’s parade to 200 marchers.

In addition to denying field access to the Cub Scouts, police blocked an autograph-signing session by South Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park and a lion dance performance and subjected fans to searches so detailed that the contents of notebooks were read.

Ticket sales were also restricted, leaving many seats empty, and most of the front-row seats were apparently reserved for undercover cops, presumably to guard against anyone jumping onto the field.


“The police were a little out of their comfort zone,” said Bruce Sagan, head of Boy Scout Troop 943, who attended the game with his Scouts. “About a third of the stands were police.”