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We are ready #3! A short anecdote and a long email

Previously in this exciting series: here and here.

Context for the entire series: first two paragraphs here. (Executive summary: "No one in China or anywhere else will be better off if the Chinese public ends up feeling under-appreciated or aggrieved about the Beijing Games. So it's better all around if they're a success.")

Short anecdote: well, it's right below.

I've been having big internet problems while on the road away from Beijing. Entire outage for a day-plus. On and off connections after that. The problems, I now know, were purely technical. Bad connections in one part of town, then a router that was failing. But before knowing that, I asked the very nice manager at a modest but nice hotel what was going on. She said:

"With the Olympics coming up, the police are being very careful about the internet. We are sorry for the inconvenience to our visitors that they have closed it down during the summer months."

She was apologetic and slightly embarrassed to have to give the (false, but true to her) explanation. The interesting point was, she thought it was entirely natural that this would be the cause.

Long email: After the jump, one of several interesting messages I have recently received from people involved in or closely observing the Olympic preparations. This person, whose name and background I know, I will identify only as ethnic Chinese man who is now a naturalized citizen of a Western country and who has great professional familiarity with defense and military-technology issues.

The gist of his point: the reason the Chinese government is being so unbelievably ham-handed in its security measures and irritating the very foreigners it has invited to view its Games is that it is so ill-informed and naive about the real views of the outside world. Also it has such limited intelligence about the terrorist threats it actually might face that it is over-reacting and trying to shut everything down.

My correspondent ends with a plea for outside assistance to save the Chinese government from itself. I'm not holding my breath for that to happen, but his detailed description of the predicament is worth considering.

The last thing I would want to be is an apologist for the Kafkaesque knots that China has tied itself into for the Olympics.

The reality is that the Chinese system is ill equipped for dealing with the scope and depth of threats they will be facing in less than 1 month.

Crudely put: China simply do not have the kind of “early warning” systems that is characteristic of intelligence systems deployed by the US and its closest allies.

Allied intelligence have the technical capability to monitor communications nearly anywhere in the world in real time, the ability to ferret out useful information, sense unusual patterns (like a rise in the “chatter” in terrorist networks that give early warnings to major attacks), and so on. This allows US intelligence to get advanced warning of trouble ahead of time, and successfully, most of the time, deal with the kind of coordinated protest campaigns at things like G8 meetings, etc.

China, for all the talk of millions of spies and operatives ostensibly working abroad for them, is singularly unable to match or duplicate the competences and capabilities of the American / Allied system. For example, anyone who monitored Tibetan activists abroad would have known that something was up well before the riots broke out in March. The only one caught “in the dark” was Beijing and the Tibetan Autonomous Region Government. Furthermore, even after this event broke, Chinese handling of it was utterly inept, and caused them bigger problems than the initial riots....

I had a look at the Chinese cards on Tibet --- and they are not a great hand, but they did have cards to play and they played it badly or not at all.

The bottom line was China was neither tipped off by good intelligence, prepared, nor even after the event occurred, able to put the best face to the world on the Tibet issue.

Without a doubt, the kind of Kafkaesque security precautions you are seeing being taken around you is a crude, clumsy, and, in my view, ultimately ineffective and unhelpful means to make up for a lack of preparation, training, and competence....

The bottom line is, there is less than 4 weeks left before the games open. The only thing that there is time to “fix” is to create the best possible public relations and security SWAT team for the games when incidents occur (if it doesn’t, great, but lets be prepared).

The SWAT team can also go about undoing some of the damage caused --- like by denying visas to the TV crew you mentioned --- in the mean time.

Here is the catch: In order for the team to be any good, they would have to be made up of people who mentally understand the West and is able to constructively, credibly engage with international media. I have no doubt that if China were to politely asked for international volunteers, they would get them to work for this event for free if there is some assurance that their advice would be, a) given at a sufficiently high level to make a real difference, b) listened to and acted on.

To date, I am not aware of China making such a request nor do I see any awareness in Beijing that they are “over their heads” with the challenge they face in 4 weeks.

China needs help from some highly skilled, experienced, foreign friends fast.