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Best Be Behavin' in Beijing

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China’s human rights record has prompted concerns for both Olympic participants and spectators, including people who plan to protest the policies of the Chinese government.

Though many organizations are strategizing how to protect visitors to China, none can confidently predict how the Chinese government will treat unauthorized activities at the games.

“China isn’t a country that has a long history of civil disobedience,” says Betsy Apple, director of the Crimes Against Humanity program at Human Rights First in New York City. “We’ve heard that the Chinese are very concerned about keeping a very tight lid on activities at the Olympics, and its primary concern is to make sure it doesn’t get embarrassed.”

In June, the Beijing Organizing Committee posted a “behavior guide” in question-and-answer format on its website, giving 57 regulations and procedures foreign visitors should be aware of. Though an English-language press release mentions what anyone would expect—bans on terrorist activities, import of weapons, drugs, poisons or counterfeit currency, and attacks on referees—news reports say the Chinese-language guide warns against bringing in printed materials that criticize China, plans to hold rallies, or protests that include burning the Chinese flag. As of press time, a promised English-language version of the guide was not posted on BOCOG’s site.

Both the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. State Department have been laying the groundwork to aid U.S. athletes and travelers who run afoul of Chinese law. “We’re sending an official U.S. delegation of 600 people—athletes, coaches, USOC employees, and volunteers—to China for the games,” explains Rana Dershowitz, general counsel and chief of legal and governmental affairs at the USOC in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Usually nothing happens, but we’re making sure we have counsel on the ground who are well-versed in Chinese law and that we have the resources should something happen.”

The best way for visitors to protect themselves is to obey Chinese law, says David J. Schwartz, who heads the East Asia and Pacific Division of the American Citizens Services in the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C. He’s cross-training staff, consolidating employees from his five consular offices in China, and doing emergency preparedness training to be ready for the Beijing Olympics.

“The kinds of things we expect are typically the bread and butter issues,” says Schwartz. “People do get arrested, do protest, do lose passports, do get in accidents, and do get sick, but we expect more of it.”

The State Department doesn’t tell people not to engage in protests while in China. “But they must receive a special permit from municipal authorities,” explains Schwartz. “If people follow the law of the country they’re in, they can pretty much—we hope—stay out of trouble.

“If they do get arrested, we have a consular convention with China, like we do with most other countries, that allows for consular access within a defined period of time,” says Schwartz. “The Chinese are required to notify us immediately upon detention or arrest of a U.S. citizen, but no later than four days. They typically wait the full four days or maybe beyond that. But very often we find out about arrests from friends and family members.”

When the State Department learns of arrests of U.S. citizens, its employees visit them in jail, provide a list of English-speaking attorneys who’ve worked with foreigners, offer guidance on how to work best within the Chinese system, and offer to convey information to loved ones. “We will not have attorneys on the ground who represent Americans in the Chinese judicial system,” says Schwartz. “But we look out for their interests to make sure they’re treated consistently with the way locals are treated.”

How do U.S. consular officials know if the Chinese are complying with the notice requirement? “You don’t know what you don’t know,” admits Schwartz. “But we also handle welfare and whereabouts calls. People call because they can’t locate others. We do anything available to find them, from checking with immigration officials, hoofing it on the ground, and calling authorities to see if they’ve been detained.”

“This is our role 365 days a year,” adds Schwartz. “We’re there to assist and act as a liaison to Americans who have any form of emergency. We’re adaptable, ready for a crisis, and we expect the worst.”

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