Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Security increases in Beijing after terror attacks

Beijing has become a city in lock-down with increased security checks, and armed police and army patrols posted at stations and key locations. The heightened security comes in the wake of several terror attacks in the restive Xinjiang as well as the south-western Yunnan province and the capital itself. It also comes in the lead up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.

Security checks

Travelling on Beijing's subway has always been fraught with problems of overcrowding, but this week's security checks have done little to alleviate the pain for millions of commuters who travel on the Beijing metro every day.

In a country long concerned about domestic insurrection and political protests, as well as local disputes, travellers on public transport have long been used to using airport style X-ray machines.

However, such checks could be avoided if travelling light. Indeed if guns, knives or other dangerous items were carried in pockets of a coat, a commuter could easily pass officers directing those with bags to the X-ray machine.

This week no-one can avoid the checks, bag or no bag. At stations all over the capital passengers now find themselves penned in, herded along narrow corridors towards security gates.

Commuters reaching the end of the line then subjected to body checks as well as the usual bag screenings. At stations in the city's north, subway staff said passengers had to wait between 20-30 minutes to get through the security line, up from about 10-15 minutes prior to the new screening requirements.

Whilst some commuters saw the need for the increased security, others were dismissive and said the checks were merely for show since not all stations were implementing the same stringent measures. According to the South China Morning Post only nine stations were affected by the new security [WSJ / SCMP / RT / Time / Shanghaiist / Sky News].

Terror response

The heightened security is a clear sign the authorities are not going to slacken their response to the recent attacks. In fact there are reports that orders have been issued allowing SWAT teams to shoot terrorists on sight, though it is unclear what constitutes a terrorist.

Such orders could result in serious mistakes as was seen in London in 2005 when a man, Jean Charles de Menezes, was mistakenly shot by armed police [tvnewswatch: Catalogue of errors in de Menezes shooting Aug 2005].

Following that incident the IPPC blasted the Metropolitan police commissioner [tvnewswatch: IPPC report blasts Asst commissioner Aug 2007] and there were long running inquiries. However an inquest brought only an open verdict [tvnewswatch: Open verdict in de Menezes inquest Dec 2008]. Meanwhile a corporate criminal prosecution of the Metropolitan Police, brought under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, alleging that the police service had failed in its duty of care to Menezes, resulted in a guilty verdict and fine [Wikipedia].

Tiananmen anniversary

The likelihood of similar inquiries and prosecutions in a country such as China is remote. Indeed as the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre approaches, there is still no official acknowledgement of the death toll, estimated as high as 3,000 civilians.

In the run up to the anniversary activists have been locked up. "The response by the Chinese authorities to the 25th anniversary has been harsher than in previous years, as they persist with trying to wipe the events of 4 June from memory," said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Some individuals are still serving long prison sentences whilst others remain in hiding [Telegraph].

Those attempting to rekindle the past find the strong arm of the law on their shoulder. Even seemingly harmless gestures, like posting a selfie in Tiananmen Square while flashing a V for victory, have led to detentions according to the New York Times. Meanwhile the police have been warning Western journalists to stay away from the square in the coming days or "face grave consequences".

Voices cannot be silenced beyond China's borders, nor even in Hong Kong which is run under different rules. On the 4th of June many dissidents and some of those who escaped China at the time of the Tiananmen protests will gather at events in the US, Taiwan and Hong Kong [Bloomberg].

Mothers who lost sons and daughters in the protests also try to keep the memory of the massacre alive [NDTV]. But they, like anyone challenging Beijing's grip on power, face a formidable enemy.

Beijing too faces difficult challenges. In an attempt to keep the peace, prevent dissent and further terror attacks, China's authorities run the risk of stirring up the hornet's nest even more.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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