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China-Style Security Doesn't Travel Well

June 21, 2010

Jason Dean
The Wall Street Journal
June 18, 2010

An incident in New Zealand has ignited fresh
controversy about the behavior of Chinese
security personnel on foreign soil when confronted by pro-Tibet protests.

Russel Norman, co-leader of New Zealand’s Green
Party and a member of parliament, says he was
"assaulted" by Chinese security personnel
accompanying Vice President Xi Jinping, who was
in the Land of the Long White Cloud on Friday as part of a four-nation trip.

The altercation occurred outside a parliamentary
building called the Beehive in the Kiwi capital
of Wellington. Video footage shown on New Zealand
station TV ONE shows clearly a scuffle and
tempers flaring. As the New Zealand parliamentary
speaker greets Xi several meters away, Norman
begins waving a Tibetan flag and hollering
"Freedom for Tibet. Freedom for the people of
Tibet." A suit-clad member of Xi’s entourage
opens an umbrella in front of the flag -- a
favored of Chinese security forces to obscure
unsightly political expression. Norman says they
also elbowed him. Another member of the Chinese
team grabs the Tibetan banner and hurls it to the
ground. Shoving ensues as Norman, yelling “give
me my flag back,” tries to retrieve it. A man who
appears to be a New Zealand security officer
tries to keep Norman and his Chinese adversaries apart.

Chinese leaders (like those of America) are
frequently the targets of protests when they
travel abroad, though the protesters seldom get
close enough to come in direct contact with aides
and security personnel. But Chinese security
agents have demonstrated before that they’re
willing to get physical when confronted by those
who broach the ultrasensitive issue of Tibet --
even when overseas. During the Olympic torch
relay, the torch’s blue track-suited guardians,
members of a specially trained force, were widely
criticized in Europe for manhandling pro-Tibetan
protesters. Lord Sebastian Coe, British athletics
star and Olympics official, referred to the
guards at the time as “horrible” and “thugs.”

Wellington police said they planned to
investigate Norman’s claims of assault A
news office official with the Chinese Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, reached by telephone in New
Zealand, said Friday afternoon she was checking
but hadn’t been able to confirm the incident with
her colleagues, and therefore couldn’t comment.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, a former
investment banker who heads the National Party,
did his best to smooth over the kerfuffle. “While
we fully believe and support the freedom of
speech and the freedom of rights in this country,
I’d hate to see that overshadow what has been a
growing and developing relationship," Key told TV ONE.

Norman, meanwhile, clearly no fan of the Chinese
government even before Friday, held the incident
up as evidence of Beijing’s human-rights
problems. “I think it’s pretty outrageous that
Chinese security can come to our country and push
around an elected member of parliament simply
because we’re standing up for democracy and
freedom, in our own country, on our own
parliamentary grounds," he told reporters.

In the video footage, the Chinese personnel
appear angered by Norman’s protest, which may
explain their actions. Perhaps they feared for
Xi’s safety. They also may have been worried that
images of the protest could make their way home,
embarrassing the vice president among the Chinese nationalist set.

Still, as is often the case when China’s
government tries to stop free expression, one has
to wonder if it has dawned on those officials
since the incident that, had they left the now
internationally famous Norman alone, few people
who weren’t at the Beehive would ever have noticed him.
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