China's Fear of Summer

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Claro Cortes IV / Reuters

Special forces apprehend mock terrorists during an Olympic security drill at Beijing People's Police College.

The Hash House Harriers is a social group of runners that meets in cities all over the world to go for a jog followed by a few beers. It calls itself "a drinking club with a running problem." But in Beijing two weeks ago, the Hash House Harriers ran into a more serious problem. After a five-mile jaunt through a bar district in eastern Beijing, seven runners were detained by police on suspicion that they were involved in a terrorist plot. "We did not imagine that, of all the things that could happen, we'd get arrested for running," says one participant.

It wasn't the running, per se, that got the Harriers in trouble. Police suspected that the baking flour the runners used to mark their route was a toxic powder. After the run ended, they were taken into custody and interviewed for several hours while police conducted forensic tests on the flour. At 4 a.m. they were finally allowed to go home. The experience was particularly unsettling because there was nothing unusual about the Harriers' event — the group has been gathering for runs in Beijing since the 1980s. So why did police decide to pay such close attention now? "Paranoia," says the runner.

Less than 100 days before the start of the Summer Olympics, a creeping sense of unease pervades Beijing. The March riots in Tibet and the rough passage of the Olympic torch through some foreign cities has intensified official concern that the Games will bring trouble to the Chinese capital. In response, authorities have issued terror warnings, canceled public events and subjected foreigners to a higher level of scrutiny. Even as Beijing dashes to complete preparations to welcome the world in August, the city suddenly feels less welcoming.

Hardly a week goes by without a new terrorism alert. In early April, the Ministry of Public Security announced it had uncovered plans for attacks during the Games by Uighur separatists from China's Xinjiang region. In March, authorities said a female Uighur terrorist attempted to start a fire on a flight from Urümqi to Beijing. Although the attempted attack received widespread coverage, authorities offered few further details. Interpol and the U.S. Department of State have both warned that the Olympics could be an attractive target for international terrorists.

Official fears extend to the possibility of embarrassing protests, and authorities are seeking ways to limit their exposure. Two weeks ago, police ordered the Midi Music Festival, a four-day outdoor rock concert that was to begin May 1, to reschedule to October. Zhang Fan, founder of the nine-year-old event, told the Associated Press, "I understand the [police are] mainly concerned about young people gathering together and doing radical things."

Foreigners are also feeling the heat. Expats in Beijing have reported greater scrutiny of their passports and residency permits, while international businesspeople complain about tightened requirements for renewing visas. Beijing's nightlife has been targeted as well. In April, police raided bars in the Sanlitun entertainment district, arresting 20 people — including eight foreigners — mostly on drug charges. The authorities said the raids were part of a standard antidrug campaign. A senior Western diplomat in Beijing reckoned, however, that the Sanlitun operation was more "political than criminal." He noted that the targeted bars were well known as expat hangouts; perhaps, said the diplomat, the intention was to send a message that foreigners in the city are on watch.

It's not always clear what authorities are watching for, however. In March, for example, about 100 people gathered outside a Beijing mall to celebrate International Pillow Fight Day. Before the participants could begin whacking each other with pillows, several dozen police stopped the rumble — even following the group to another location and squelching a second attempted donnybrook. Even things considered safe at a children's slumber party can trip Beijing's increasingly taut security wires.

With reporting by Simon Elegant/Beijing