As protesters besiege the Olympic torch on its global tour, a phalanx of tall, tough-looking young Chinese men in blue-and-white running gear have vigorously protected the flame -- too vigorously in the eyes of those who consider protest a constitutional right.
With their steely demeanor and strong-arm tactics, they have become a symbol of what is going wrong for Chinese authorities who had hoped to make the 2008 Beijing Games a worldwide celebration of China's friendly new face.
Sebastian Coe, chairman of the Olympic organizing committee for 2012 in London, called the men "thugs" and said they had pushed him around when the flame passed through the city Sunday. A spokeswoman for the Paris police, Marie Lajus, said the men had failed to coordinate with local authorities when they grabbed the torch and put out the flame during protests in the French capital Monday. One torchbearer described them as aggressive and robotic; another called them tense and irritable.
A San Francisco police spokesman, Sgt. Neville Gittens, said city authorities debated whether to allow the Chinese guards to participate in the ceremonies planned Wednesday for the torch's only stop in North America. In the end, the guards stayed, but the torch was secretly rerouted to avoid protesters.
‘Sacred Flame Protection Unit’
Fleeing the public and accusations of thuggery were not what Beijing municipal and Olympic organizing committee authorities had in mind last August when they held a public ceremony to swear in the Beijing Olympic Games Sacred Flame Protection Unit. The special squad was made up of closely vetted volunteers from the special forces academy of the paramilitary People's Armed Police, state-controlled news media reported.
Resentment of the Chinese guards in London and Paris was heightened by apparent efforts to maintain secrecy about who they were. After the complaints in London, British police refused to be specific. Police in Paris said they were not really sure.
Olympic officials in Beijing, meanwhile, said the guards were specially trained student volunteers but did not say from which school. China's Internet censors also removed long-standing online reports of the August swearing-in ceremony.
At the time, the reports said the volunteer policemen were chosen for their height, proportion and good physical condition. The reports also said the young men had received special training in five foreign languages -- learning words such as "back" and "forward" -- and were taught good manners, as well as how to drive cars and motorcycles in convoys along crowd-lined streets.
Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said in Beijing on Thursday that surrounding the torch with private security agents has become "standard practice" in pre-Olympic relays. He did not differentiate between private security and China's People's Armed Police, which has been used extensively in recent weeks to put down protests in Tibet and other Tibetan-inhabited areas -- the conflict that inspired most of those demonstrating abroad as the torch passed.
China's civilian and military authorities have joint command over the People's Armed Police, nearly 700,000 men and women assigned to protect foreign embassies in Beijing along with suppressing riots, controlling the border and fighting fires. But their standard police tactics for China, where state authority is enforced with an iron hand, were bound to not play well during the Olympic torch's stops in London, Paris and San Francisco.
"China's Thugs," said a headline in London's Evening Standard newspaper. "Flame farce with Chinese heavies, jogging police and riotous demos," the Daily Mail said.
Against that background, Michael Phelan, the police chief in Canberra, Australia, told reporters that the Chinese squad would have no role when the flame stops in the Australian capital April 24, despite reports of planned protests.
Other stops where the flame's guards appear likely to be tested are April 17 in New Delhi, where India's large community of Tibetan exiles will have access; April 26 in Nagano, Japan, a country with a tradition of open demonstrations; and May 2 in Hong Kong, where residents are used to challenging Beijing. The torch will be in Buenos Aires on Friday.
Within mainland China, authorities have vowed to go ahead with a relay leg in Tibet, including an ascent of Mount Everest, despite the violence last month in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and plans for protests by Tibet independence campaigners. But Olympic organizers have refused to be pinned down on dates for the climb.
The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games has not told foreign correspondents whether they will be able to cover the Tibet leg. As things stand, foreign journalists have been barred from entering the region, where People's Armed Police have been deployed in large numbers.
The impression left by the Olympic torch guards in London and Paris illustrated the gap between Chinese authorities' idea of crowd control and those of societies with guarantees of free speech and assembly. When the torch arrived in Beijing on March 31, the Tiananmen Square welcoming ceremony was untroubled -- mostly because People's Armed Police had closed the venue to anyone without a pass.
In addition, the senior Communist Party officials responsible for China's Olympic preparations have little experience of foreign societies and their values. The two top Olympic officials -- Xi Jinping of the Politburo's Standing Committee and Liu Qi, the Beijing party secretary -- rose through party ranks in provincial assignments.
Kang Xiaoguang, a sociology researcher at Beijing's Renmin University, said Chinese authorities appear determined to prevent protests, by foreigners as well as Chinese, during both the domestic torch relay and the athletic events in August. Some might argue that the Chinese government would gain by tolerating demonstrators, but that is not the way officials in Beijing think, Kang said.
Moreover, the official mood appears to have hardened since the rioting in Tibet. Since the violence, in which 22 people were killed, Chinese authorities have harshly condemned foreign news media and supporters of Tibet.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) seemed to encourage demonstrators in San Francisco, for instance, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, accused her of lacking "morality and conscience." Jiang added, "It is clear that kind of person has ulterior motives to disturb and sabotage the Olympic torch relay in San Francisco and elsewhere over and over."
Correspondents Mary Jordan in London and John Ward Anderson in Paris contributed to this report.