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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Beijing in lockdown

June 29, 2008

As security-minded Chinese authorities continue their pre-Games
crackdown, the heat is on outsiders -- and the more foreigners who
leave town, the better
Bill Schiller, ASIA BUREAU
The Toronto Star (Canada)
June 28, 2008

BEIJING -- Is the Olympic party over even before it begins?

With every passing day this host city for the 2008 Summer Games is
slowly going into lockdown.

Foreigners are being scrutinized more than ever before, random
security checks have begun on the city's subways and visa
restrictions continue to tighten.

Whether Beijing's Olympics can be the open, welcoming, joyous
celebration for which the Games have come to be known is questionable.

But one thing is certain: Canada's Derek Hildenbrand won't be here.

The 29-year-old Web marketing specialist from Banff, Alta., has
called Beijing home for 4½ years.

But on Canada Day he'll be winging his way to Eastern Europe -- a
casualty of the Chinese government's visa regulations being more
strictly enforced as the countdown to the Games quickens.

Like countless thousands of foreigners, Hildenbrand lived here on an
easily renewable F-visa.

Now the government has terminated F-visas -- and he'll have to
reapply from abroad.

"It's a major hassle," Hildenbrand said in an interview this week.

"And trying to find answers from the government is impossible. No one
seems to know what's going on."

It's all part of the ever-tightening stranglehold of security that
has gripped the city since the beginning of the new year.

With more than 100 heads of state coming to the Games, and the eyes
of the world looking on, Chinese authorities have become – perhaps
understandably – obsessed with security and are trying to examine and
re-examine the status of every foreigner in Beijing.

National image counts, too.

Authorities have been shutting down selected bars, magazines,
dissidents and websites -- anyone and anything they feel might
adversely effect China's reputation.

"They want this to be an absolutely perfect presentation," says
Gilbert Kerckhove, a Beijing-based consultant. "They don't want to
leave anything to chance."

For young Westerners who in recent years have flooded into Beijing
with the same sort of zest a previous generation did to Prague –
bringing their party spirit with them – it could be the end of an
era, or at the very least, a long hiatus.

"There have been a lot of clampdowns," says Hildenbrand, "and it just
doesn't seem to be as much fun."

Legitimately or otherwise, foreigners have been a target.

In the words of the China Law Blog, an award-winning Chinese website:
"China's law enforcement against foreigners is constantly getting
stricter and the pace has only accelerated in the last few months."

The government signalled this was coming just a few months ago.

In a little-reported news item in January, Wang Anshun, Beijing's
deputy Communist party chief, announced that police were launching an
operation called "Action for a Safe Olympic Games" to conduct "a
comprehensive survey" of the immigrant population in the city.

Police sweeps of well-known immigrant neighbourhoods followed. In
recent months, even diplomatic compounds have been targeted.

Residents in the Jianguomenwai Diplomatic Compound recently reported
visa and security checks taking place in its hallways.

Signs were posted reminding all foreigners they were required to
register at their local police stations -- a standard requirement for
foreigners under Chinese law.

Police were also knocking on doors, checking to see whether cleaning
staff and nannies possessed proper papers.

"From the Chinese point of view, it's quite simple," says Kerckhove,
"the fewer foreigners, the fewer people – and the easier it is to
address security issues."

He says the Chinese aren't particularly concerned if overseas
attendance at the Games slumps.

"They take the view that the Games aren't about visitors ... the
Olympic Games are made for TV. Four billion people are going to watch
it on TV. So let them stay home and watch it."

Hotel bookings suggest many will.

Zhang Huigang, an official with Beijing Tourist Office, told
Associated Press last month that five-star hotels were only 77 per
cent booked for the Olympic period and four-star hotels stood at 45 per cent.

Tourism in China is already experiencing a downturn as a result of
the troubles in Tibet and the Sichuan earthquake.

Kerckhove, who organized the bidding process for the selection of the
"Bird's Nest" National Stadium, says the "cleanup" of Beijing that is
so evident now actually began last year, with police sweeps of
Filipinas – many of whom were maids – and out-of-country sex workers
from other countries.

The visa restrictions pushing many Westerners out today are only the
most recent escalation of ever-tightening security.

But China's security concerns are real, he emphasizes.

"They're scared to death," he says, "especially about the possibility
of an airborne attack."

Just this week, Chinese security officials revealed that batteries of
surface-to-air missiles have been placed within 800 metres of the
Bird's Nest stadium, the architectural centrepiece of the Games that
will host the opening and closing ceremonies.

Kerckhove says no one can deny the Games in August, with their
high-profile guest list, represent "a golden opportunity" for
terrorists and China needs to be vigilant.

But the visa clampdown will come with adverse consequences for
legitimate businesses.

"Business is drying up," he says, noting that delays in getting visas
have meant business trips to China and meetings have had to be
rescheduled and even cancelled.

He predicts that for two months -- from about July 20 until the end
of the Paralympics, which follow the Games -- "industry and trade is
going to grind to a halt."

Restaurants along Gongti Beilu, near the Workers' Stadium, in what
once seemed like prized locations will be directly affected.

Will Bernholz, who manages the popular Kro's Nest restaurant, was
excited when he pulled into Beijing this spring and realized the
restaurant he was about to manage sat smack on top of an Olympic venue.

"I expected we were going to do a bang-up business," says the Chapel
Hill, N.C., native. "I thought we were going to make money hand over
fist. But obviously, that's not the case now."

Bernholz said he and his partners have been informed that their
popular spot will be closed around July 20 and will not be allowed to
reopen until about Sept. 20. There will be no compensation for the closure.

"The idea is that it's for the greater good of the people," he notes.
"You have to live with it."
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