Image: Chinese policeman
Robert F. Bukaty  /  AP
A Chinese paramilitary police officer stands in the shade on a sweltering day while guarding the National Stadium in Beijing. The stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, will host the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the athletic competitions of the Olympic Games.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/25/2008 1:07:49 PM ET 2008-07-25T17:07:49

Much has been made about China's heightened security measures, including its stricter visa process, its guidelines for visitors and spectators, and its mobilization of army resources. But it's not palpable until you actually step into Beijing and travel from neighborhood to neighborhood.

China's threat level has been on high alert for months. Nearly everywhere you turn, there's either a security guard or a volunteer, all at the ready to report the slightest wrongdoing or suspicious package.

At every subway station, bags are quickly and efficiently screened. Cars are restricted in the Olympic area — the section of town where the Olympic village and most of the venues are located — which is bustling with police vehicles, motorcycles and guards. And hotels within the Olympic area are tightly guarded, some with baggage screeners installed in the lobby.

Even David Copperfield, who wowed China by walking through the Great Wall 22 years ago, would have a hard time slipping through this security blanket.

Security is just as tight at Tiananmen Square, where each entrance is guarded by a cadre of screeners. Expressionless sentries are at attention throughout the square, withstanding the 95-degree heat. The lucky ones are under umbrellas. Every few minutes, a police van rolls through the square; more squad cars are parked throughout. It can be quite intimidating for visitors.

So what's it like to be a policeman in Beijing right now? Apparently, if you're not one of the ones ordered to guard the Olympic area or Tiananmen Square, life is pretty easy. I met up with a friend, a local Beijing resident, and her police-officer boyfriend in Beijing on Thursday. He had just gotten off his overnight shift. Over lunch at one of the city's superb Peking duck restaurants (dishes included foie gras and duck hearts), I asked him how busy he was.

"Not busy at all," he said.

His answer shocked me, considering how security has dominated the headlines with the Opening Ceremony just two weeks away. I asked him why work was slow.

He told me he wasn't working around the Olympic area, that he was in another part of Beijing, basically in another precinct. He added that officials had brought in 10,000 police officers from other cities and provinces, making his life easier. The officers in the Olympic area, however, were hen mang — very busy — he said with a laugh.

He was a jovial guy, teasing me about my poor Mandarin and speaking slowly so I could understand. After navigating security checkpoints and obeying taciturn guards for the past two days, it was refreshing to chow down on some duck hearts with an off-duty police officer who was clearly enjoying the fact that he was off duty.

He polished off the last of the duck and beer, and insisted on paying for lunch. How could I resist a police officer?

Sunny Wu will be writing for msnbc.com throughout the Beijing Olympics. He can be reached at sunny.k.wu@gmail.com. You can follow more of his exploits at http://meiguoren.wordpress.com/.

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