SWAT on Segways: 100K officers set for Olympic security
By Calum MacLeod
BEIJING — China is mobilizing an anti-terrorism force of 100,000 to protect next month's Olympic Games that includes SWAT teams on Segways and officers who can shoot nets like Spider-Man at suspects.
An additional 500,000 volunteers will be on neighborhood street corners to watch for suspicious people. And there's a reward up to $73,000 for anyone who tips police to a major terrorist threat.
Vice President Xi Jinping told a "mobilization" rally held off Tiananmen Square last week that "a safe Olympics is the most significant symbol of a successful Olympics in Beijing and also the most important symbol to display the national image of China."
Police at roadblocks inspect all Beijing-bound vehicles on every route into the Chinese capital. Subway riders within the city undergo baggage checks.
"I don't mind the new security checks, as I use the subway every day, and I hope they continue after the Olympics, too," computer engineer Liu Haisheng says. "But I do resent the guns that police are now carrying on main streets. It makes us Beijingers feel uncomfortable. I think about 1989," he says, referring to the democracy protests and the massacre of hundreds of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.
After protests this year in Tibet and along the Olympic torch relay route, the Chinese government claimed that Tibetan supporters backing the exiled Dalai Lama and separatists from China's Muslim northwest planned to sabotage the Games.
"These Olympics represent the largest event the People's Republic of China has ever held," says Wang Shacheng, a research fellow at the Belfer Center's International Security Program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
"Once the Olympic torch relay started, it was obvious that China has opponents. So the government is determined to secure the Games," he says. "They are making a huge effort to ensure that not the slightest security failure takes place. They do not want China to lose face."
Protecting that image are the most well-trained and highly armed professionals in recent Chinese history. The government has placed surface-to-air missiles around the major Olympics venues. Beijing's SWAT team was launched in November 2005 and numbers about 1,000 officers who will focus on anti-terrorism and riot control, according to the Beijing police department.
China also has the Snow Leopard Commando Unit, an elite police tactical force that trained at a secret camp for five years to be used if terrorists, hijackings or bombs threaten the Aug. 8-24 Games, according to the Beijing Review, a state magazine. And last month, the 120-member No.1 Detachment of Beijing SWAT was renamed the Blue Sword Commando Unit.
The SWAT arsenal includes guns that shoot a nylon net resembling a spider web to ensnare anyone considered a threat. Beijing SWAT teams "have net guns among their weapons," says Zi Xiangdong with the city's police department. "They do not always carry them, but bring them according to the situation and will deploy them when necessary."
Fictional versions of this Spider-Man-like device trapped actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the films Total Recall and The Running Man, but its makers insist it works in the real world. "Many special police units around China have bought our net guns, as they are quick to use and do not harm the suspect," says Song Youjiang, a technician at Zonso Electronic Technology, based in Zhuhai in Guangdong province. The net is "very strong, so once a suspect is caught, the more he struggles, the more the net restricts him," Song says.
In recent years, each of China's 31 provinces have set up SWAT teams. On July 2, the Jinan SWAT team in eastern China's Shandong province held an Olympic anti-terrorism drill that featured armed police on Segways. Officers clutched the vehicles' posts between their legs while aiming guns at targets. Pictures of the drill provoked humor in China and abroad, amid concern that riders could lose their balance from the recoil of the gun.
"The Segway has a stabilizing system, and the police have undergone specialized training so that they will not fall over if they fire a gun," assures Liu Wei, a Segway spokesperson in Beijing.
Segways will be used by SWAT teams at the Olympic sailing venue in Qingdao, and for patrolling at Beijing's new airport terminal, as well as National Stadium, dubbed the Bird's Nest and the centerpiece of the Beijing Games.
Norm Jarvis, a former Secret Service agent who assisted in security planning for the Olympics in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, says he has worked with Chinese officials on Olympic security planning since 2003.
"I think they've come a long way, but the proof is in the pudding," Jarvis says. "I think the question is whether they revert to measures that many international visitors may regard as extreme, if something happens.
"But I'm confident that they will rise to the occasion."
Copyright 2008 Gannett Company, Inc.