Clampdown on dissidents smothers Beijing and beyond

BEIJING Fri Aug 8, 2008 9:22am EDT

A policeman checks a vehicle on a highway in Hami, Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region August 7, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

A policeman checks a vehicle on a highway in Hami, Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region August 7, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Countless Chinese will stay locked in on Friday night, watching the Beijing Olympics open on television. Quite a few will do so against their will.

The build-up to the opening ceremony has brought a smothering security lockdown aimed at ensuring dissidents and protesters do not distract from the official festivities.

Across Beijing, dissidents and their families are being held under house arrest, while others have fled to distant provinces or been taken on enforced "holidays" by state security minders, said human rights groups and many Chinese activists.

"I can go outside, but I have to ride in the police car with my guards wherever I go," said Yu Jie, a dissident-writer speaking by telephone. "It's absurd, because I have no interest in the Olympics, not even in watching them on television, and this is just giving me more subject-matter for critical essays."

Human Rights in China, a New York-based group, issued a list of 24 protesters, critics of Communist Party control and their family members detained or closely guarded in recent days.

"In order to ensure a 'Safe Olympics', the Chinese authorities have put society under a virtual lockdown," said Sharon Hom, executive director of the group, in an email.

On Friday, Beijing's Tiananmen Square was closed and surrounding streets cleared of people, many of them Chinese tourists hoping to enjoy pre-Games excitement on the landmark site.

Petitioners who have come to the capital to present complaints to officials have often been detained, many said. "We're always on the run now," said Wang Haizhen, a middle-aged woman from Hebei province next to Beijing.

China has said the relentless security and more than 100,000 police and troops watching Beijing are needed to foil terror threats during the Games.

Beijing Olympic organizers Secretary General Wang Wei said on Friday security was at the "top of the agenda".

"We spared no effort in terms of making a safe Games," he told a news conference. "The force has been reinforced. We share intelligence with other countries of the world. Nevertheless we want to make the Games relaxed."

Authorities routinely impose clampdowns during sensitive political meetings or on anniversaries to prevent protests that could be embarrassing or spark social unrest.

The lockdown extends beyond the skies, streets and subways of Beijing to towns and villages far from the capital, where peaceful rights campaigners and ordinary residents alleging official corruption described strict surveillance.

"I'd love to watch the Games opening ceremony but I'm being held in a room without a television cable," said Yao Lifa, a former teacher in central China's Hubei province who has long faced official pressure for demanding democratic change.

"I thought the Beijing Olympic Games were for all Chinese people, but it seems I'm an exception."

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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