Monday, September 21, 2009

Stabbings & beatings ahead of National Day

As National Day approaches the security on Beijing's streets is becoming ever tighter. Security checks at subway stations have been in place for some time but over the last few weeks staff have been strictly enforcing bag checks. On station platforms bomb disposal containers are in evidence and police and security personnel can be seen guarding bridges and other key locations around town. That's just on a normal day. With the weekly rehearsals there comes a security operation usually only seen at G20 summits or Presidential visits.

Last Friday Armoured Personnel Carriers once again positioned themselves around the capital, though quite what their purpose is can only be guessed at. Around the vehicle stand armed police dressed from head to toe in black paramilitary uniforms and balaclavas brandishing automatic weapons. And around them hangs a tape reading: POLICE - LIMIT LINE. As if anybody would start clambering over their APC. But then perhaps they might. Dozens of passing locals seemed unperturbed by the military presence and brazenly took photos with cell-phone cameras, some even posing by the vehicle. 

In the popular shopping area of Wangfujing there were no APCs in evidence, but there were armed soldiers at the junction with Chang'an Ave. Further up the street police dog handlers seemed only to provoke more interest as dozens of local Chinese took photographs. Nearby police SWAT teams jumped from their black military style transit and positioned themselves on a corner, automatic weapons at the ready. At the other end of the street more armed SWAT teams and police carrying out identity checks on anyone considered 'suspicious'.

The nearer to Tiananmen Square, the tighter the security. The square itself was sealed off on Friday as more preparations were made. Fifty six pillars had already been erected representing the different ethnic groups of China. Video screens were being tested and giant lanterns were being hoisted. Meanwhile a helicopter belonging to state broadcaster CCTV flew round and round while police checked bags and ID papers of passers by. 

The high security is in part to prevent any potential terrorist attack. But it is also an attempt to keep other crime to a minimum. Migrant workers in particular have been checked to make sure their papers are in order. There is also the fear amongst Beijing authorities that syringe attacks, which have created major concern in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, may threaten the capital. On September 11th The Times reported that managers of websites had been ordered "to delete any discussion or mention of syringe stabbings in Beijing as soon as these are spotted". It wasn't clear whether any such incidents had taken place, but Beijing authorities are concerned enough to make sure rumours do not snowball out of control. One website manager, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, told The Times that he had been given no indication of where or when such attacks might have taken place in Beijing. "We don't even know what is in the syringes. But I'm not worried. I'll just make sure I only go out in my car and don't walk in the streets," he said.

Possible syringe attacks weren't all that authorities were sweeping under the carpet. On Thursday night two security personnel were killed and up to 14 other people injured after a man apparently went on the attack with a knife. Only a few lines were mentioned by the state news agency Xinhua who said police had captured the assailant after the attacks on Dashilan street in Qianmen, a commercial area to the south of Tiananmen Square, which is popular with tourists. The suspect was named as Zhang Jianfei, 46, from Jilin province, and some reports suggested he had been drinking after losing his job. 

In another incident a French tourist was slashed with a knife on Saturday. The attack occurred just before noon near the south end of Tiananmen Square around three hours after the latest rehearsals had come to a close. "The attack was not serious, the woman was not hurt seriously and has already rejoined her tourist group," a French Embassy spokesman told Agence France-Presse. Xinhua news agency said the elderly French woman had been rushed to hospital after the attacker, identified as Dou Mingxiang, 41, from east China's Jiangxi province, slashed her. He was arrested on the spot by police. 

Beijing is generally regarded as a very safe city with few attacks on foreigners. But last year, amid similarly tightened security for the Olympics, a Chinese man stabbed to death an American tourist visiting a historic site and injured the man's wife and their guide.

The news of this weekend's stabbings did not make Chinese language newspapers and only a few English language state news websites mentioned the incidents. Though there is a strong desire to cover up bad news, not reporting it can also help to fuel the rumour mill.

Also not reported, in China at least, was the beating of three journalists from a Japanese news agency in their Beijing hotel room. On Friday, as rehearsals for the National Day parade begun, authorities burst into their room and assaulted the men, all employees of Kyodo News. According to the Japanese news agency, police arrived at 8 pm and a reporter and two cameramen were kicked and "hit in their heads to make them kneel down...". During the attack their equipment including two laptop computers were smashed. According to reports the news team had been filming the procession along Chang'an Ave from the balcony of the Beijing Hotel when the men burst into their room. China's Foreign Ministry had ordered news organisations not to take photos when the country conducted a rehearsal September 6, but the ministry has not issued such an order since then, according to Kyodo. 

Yasushi Kato, bureau chief of the Kyodo News Beijing office, told The Associated Press several men stormed into the hotel room after one of the journalists opened the door, but they did not identify themselves. Kato said a reporter and a cameraman were Japanese and the third was a Chinese assistant. Some foreign media were told not to film and photograph the parade. AP Television News carried a live feed of military convoys, but China's Foreign Ministry asked them to stop. Later a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said she had not heard about the Kyodo case and said the ministry had not asked news agencies not to take photos of the parade. A woman at the information office of the Beijing Public Security Bureau said she had also not heard about the case. Meanwhile an employee at the front desk of the Beijing Hotel said the hotel had asked guests not to stand on the balconies to watch the rehearsal, but they could watch from inside their rooms. The AFP report was inaccessible on the Internet in China this morning. 

Beijing authorities are seemingly suspicious about foreign news media. tvnewswatch has learned that police have been told to report any foreign journalists carrying out interviews of locals to higher authorities. The memo has been passed around to all police stations across the capital. However it is unclear why they are so nervous about foreign reporters.

The rules of engagement are thus not very clear, either for foreign journalists or tourists. Even when it came to road closures on Friday, information was only posted in Chinese on several news websites. Information Boards in subways and pasted to lamp posts are only written in Chinese except for an occasional and rather unhelpful sign reading 'road closed, please use another way'.  Even before the stabbings restrictions were in place with regards knives. Notices in both Chinese and English prohibit the carrying of knives and other dangerous objects on buses and the subway. But now the sale of knives has been banned at some stores including hypermarkets such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour, after two separate knife attacks near Tiananmen Square last week, according to store officials and state media. A spokesman surnamed Wang for Wal-Mart in Beijing said police inspected the stores on Sunday and asked them to remove all knives from their shelves until further notice.

There's no refuge in the park either. Those wishing to engage in the popular pursuit of kite-flying had better go well outside of Beijing. Authorities have declared war on any flying objects, be they kites, balloons or even pigeons. Even rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes are being exterminated in and around Tiananmen Square, presumedly in case they mount an attack on Chinese leaders as they watch the parade on October 1st. 

But there will be no more rehearsals apparently. It was announced today [Monday], that next Saturday's intended rehearsal would be cancelled so as not to inconvenience the public further. A cynic might have different ideas. There were however some last minute rehearsals above Beijing as dozens of aircraft flew in formation over Tiananmen Square. Flying from the east H-6 bombers, jet fighters and army and navy helicopters flew in formation across the capital in an unannounced air display at around midday. In one downtown Beijing office dozens of staff dropped what they were doing and shot to the windows to watch the spectacle. While the West may scorn at some of the setbacks, the rather draconian rules, the excessive expenditure on flowers and decorations, many Beijingers do seem to be truly excited at the coming event, even if they only see it from their TV.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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