In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, with the torch relay soon set to pass through San Francisco, an envoy from China met with the city’s then-mayor, Gavin Newsom.
Riots had broken out the month before in Lhasa, Tibet, leading to a crackdown by Chinese security forces. The torch’s journey through London and Paris had been marred by anti-China protests and arrests. Pro-Tibet and pro-Uighur activists, among others, were planning demonstrations in San Francisco, the torch’s only U.S. stop.
Beijing was deeply concerned about damage to China’s image as its Olympic debut approached, and hoped to clamp down on dissent beyond the country’s borders. The envoy who met with Newsom demanded that he prohibit the demonstrations and, in effect, suspend the First Amendment, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information. Newsom, now California’s governor, refused, according to the former official. (Newsom did not respond to a request for comment.)
So, in a series of covert and often coercive measures that have now become a hallmark of Beijing’s approach to image management, Chinese authorities took matters into their own hands. They orchestrated pro-Beijing demonstrations, deployed their own security, and made behind-the-scenes threats to activists, all while denying such measures—a strategy repeated across four continents along the torch relay.
Judged by its scope and scale, and the sheer number of active participants, China’s 2008 measures amounted to arguably the largest covert global influence campaign in history, and a preview of how China—now a behemoth seen in Washington more as a threat than a partner—would approach power and influence as its international status grew. Yet at the time, Western observers, who were preoccupied with domestic Chinese human-rights violations and what appeared to be a surge in organic Chinese nationalism in cities such as London and Paris, missed it almost entirely.
Beijing was almost certainly emboldened by the anemic international response to its squashing of protests over the torch run in 2008, and Western democracies are only beginning to grapple with the implications. In the decade since, China has undertaken an expansive policy of surveilling, cultivating, and pressuring its diaspora; stolen trade secrets and intellectual property from Western businesses to catalyze China’s development; and carried out a coordinated international campaign of intimidation, even kidnapping dissidents and Chinese ethnic minorities abroad, forcing many to return to China to face imprisonment or worse.
Its actions during the torch run offered a hint of Beijing’s capabilities and the long arm of its security apparatus. Whereas Vietnam detained or expelled anti-China protesters prior to the torch arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, leaders in democratic countries could not simply ensure positive media coverage for China or clamp down on criticism. China responded by directly interfering with the rights and freedoms guaranteed in free societies to polish its own image.
In San Francisco, this meant organizing crowds to drown out protesters. After Newsom declined to ban rallies during the torch relay, Chinese consular officers in California mobilized somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 Chinese students to attend the protests, according to the same former senior U.S. intelligence official, and confirmed by another former counterintelligence official who asked not to be named discussing Chinese efforts on U.S. soil. These students were asked to take part in counterdemonstrations, and given free transport, boxed lunches, and T-shirts. Those on Chinese government scholarships faced threats that their funding would be revoked if they did not participate.
According to the former senior U.S. intelligence official, Beijing also flew in intelligence officers to direct the pro-China demonstrators in real time. These officials, wearing earpieces connected to radios, directed groups of counter-protesters, who ripped down banners and occupied spaces so that anti-China demonstrators could not gather.
These operations weren’t unique to San Francisco. Chinese embassies and consulates elsewhere are known to have bused in thousands of students from surrounding areas to participate in counterdemonstrations in London, Canberra, Paris, Nagano, and elsewhere, often providing signs and flags, helping them drown out pro-Tibetan or other groups. The South Korean government launched an investigation after well-equipped crowds of Chinese students appeared in Seoul, where they pelted anti-China activists with rocks in videos that went viral on YouTube—violence that a Chinese foreign-ministry spokesperson refused to condemn. Zhang Rongan, the head of a Chinese student organization in Australia known for close ties to Beijing, initially claimed that the Chinese embassy had provided support to help bring students from all over Australia to the relay. (Zhang later denied that the students had received any outside support.) In his book, Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese, the researcher James Jiann Hua To writes that Chinese students were also warned not to participate in any anti-China activity.
Though U.S officials shared the identities of Chinese intelligence officers in San Francisco with their Australian counterparts, which helped the Australians deny visas to some of them, according to the former U.S. senior intelligence official, the wider American public and media were not aware of these efforts. Media outlets at the time reported on the pro-Tibet activists and their cause, but also took pro-China crowds at face value. Reuters reported in April 2008 that the relay “has been dogged by anti-China protests that in turn prompted rallies by overseas Chinese, who are proud that their country is hosting the Olympics and of Beijing’s efforts to modernise Tibet.” Time wrote that “unlike the period after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, when the patriotism of many Chinese abroad was dampened by a distrust of the Communist Party, the torch protests have inspired cries of unity.”
The torch relay soon became what analysts point to as the global debut not just of China as a rising power but of Chinese nationalism as a force to be reckoned with. “This inflamed form of Chinese nationalism could be the most enduring and dangerous outcome of the protests surrounding the Olympics,” the China scholars Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal wrote for Foreign Affairs in June 2008.
These analyses aren’t so much wrong as they are incomplete. Many Chinese are indeed genuinely nationalistic, particularly since the country implemented nationwide patriotic education in public schools in the early 1990s. Grassroots nationalist protests are a notable feature of Chinese responses to global events, from the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 to regular anti-Japan protests. And the Beijing Olympics were an entirely understandable point of pride for many Chinese citizens, as well as members of the diaspora.
The global Chinese activism surrounding the relay was not just an expression of spontaneous national ardor, though, but also of the growing assertiveness of the Chinese security state. The demonstrations were far larger, better organized, and more ideologically uniform than they would have been without official direction. That Western observers were left discussing how dearly the Chinese people loved their country, rather than the scope and coercive reach of their government’s power, indicates how successful this influence campaign was.
Another feature of the torch relay that clearly foreshadowed the years to come was China’s opaque deployment of its own security forces abroad. Tall, well-trained men in blue-and-white tracksuits appeared alongside torch-bearers in many of the cities along the route, without public explanation by Olympic organizers. When questioned, Chinese officials insisted that the men were volunteers, but media reports soon revealed that they had in fact been recruited by Beijing from the ranks of the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary organization in China responsible for domestic security, riot control, and counterterrorism.
Robert Broadhurst, a senior London police commander in charge of security for the torch relay, said in May 2008 that Chinese authorities had threatened on multiple occasions to leave London off the torch itinerary if British police did not accept Chinese direction on local security measures. Broadhurst said the London police refused to comply. But as Konnie Huq, a relay participant in London, told the BBC, “the men in blue … seemed to be ordering about the police and the Olympic officials and everyone just seemed to be doing what they said.” Other firsthand accounts also stated that the Chinese seemed at times to be calling the shots.
There was little precedent in Olympic history for the global deployment of host-country police. The first truly global torch relay had occurred in the run-up to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Greece did not send its own police officers to accompany the torch—and on the one occasion in which Greek authorities appeared to have made that suggestion, for the Australian leg of the torch relay, they faced significant backlash from Canberra. Four years later, Beijing deployed paramilitary recruits to accompany the torch around the world.
“The Chinese government has a policy of noninterference into other countries’ affairs,” Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies, told us. “Does telling the host country where the torch is passing how to police not amount to interference with someone’s domestic affairs?”
Yet the response from Western societies was primarily one of apathy. Media organizations paid little attention. The same was true of police forces in multiple countries, who complied with demands from Chinese authorities, with the notable exceptions of Australia and Japan. Beijing carried out its campaign on a global scale, Tsang said, “because they could. There wasn’t that much pushback from practically anyone.”
The dynamics that were on display ahead of the 2008 Olympics have only intensified. Chinese authorities have grown bolder and more effective at shutting down dissent not just at home, but abroad, in liberal democracies, by using threats, harassment, and surveillance while encouraging Chinese communities overseas to protest speech perceived as anti-China.
Since 2008, the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., has on at least two occasions mobilized Chinese international students along the East Coast to participate in pro-Beijing demonstrations when Chinese leaders have visited, both to create an aura of prestige and to physically occupy sidewalk space to squeeze out protesters. China’s security state has expanded as well, establishing overseas policing centers, such as in South Africa, and even resorting to extrajudicial renditions in the most extreme cases. And Chinese espionage has extensively targeted U.S. companies from Silicon Valley to the midwestern heartland.
At the time, the 2008 Beijing Olympics torch relay wasn’t seen as a sign of things to come. But in hindsight, it was a landmark—and a warning.