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Paramilitary Olympics: Beijing: at least 94,000 security staff – but only 10,500 athletes

After the protests that greeted the torch relay, China is getting ready to put on the greatest show of security the world has ever seen. Clifford Coonan and Richard Osley report

What used to be called the Olympics are likely this summer to become the Paramilitary Games. China is planning to deploy more than 94,000 security personnel at the Beijing celebration in August, which means that uniformed and plain-clothes operatives will outnumber the 10,500 athletes by nearly nine to one.

Leading what will be the biggest security effort the world has ever seen is the People's Armed Police, a 660,000-strong militia force, which has been involved in the crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators in Lhasa. The PAP is also believed to have provided the squads of blue and white tracksuited paramilitaries who formed the controversial phalanx of guards for the Olympic torch as it made its chaotic way across London, Paris and San Francisco last week. On Thursday, the People's Armed Police News reported that the PAP force was told to prevent any security threats that could upset the Games. The paper issued a "political mobilisation order" to PAP troops telling them to prepare for an arduous time ensuring order and control before and during the Games.

Beijing is worried that activists from abroad, who have disrupted the journey of the Olympic torch relay, will also stage protests inside China over Tibet, Darfur, human rights and other issues before and during the Games. As a result, security experts forecast that the PAP's ranks will swell further. There has already been high-profile shows of strength by the militia in Beijing, public display exercises to show its carefully honed organisation.

The willingness of the torch's minders over the past week to weigh in and protect the flame – even on foreign soil where the guards have no jurisdiction – introduced the force's strict approach to a wider, worldwide audience for the first time and reflects the way security forces in China can pretty much do what they like on their own territory. About 20 government agencies – from the world's largest standing army, the two-million strong People's Liberation Army, to the fire service – will be involved in the security operation for the Olympics, supported by thousands of volunteers recruited from military and police academies. Organisers in Beijing insist they have spent less on security than the Athens Games in 2004, glossing over the argument that the last Olympics were considered a special case because they were the first to be held after the 11 September attacks on the United States. Even then, security personnel in Greece numbered between 50,000 and 70,000 operatives, far fewer than will be ready for action in Beijing.

The worldwide relay passed through Buenos Aires on Friday night with a comparatively smooth ride. Disruption had been expected but a tossed water balloon was the stiffest challenge faced by the heavy police guard. But the path ahead remains rocky. India has severely cut back the route and warned Chinese officials that it will not attempt to stop peaceful protests when the torch arrives. A similar stance has been taken in Indonesia. Japan has also mapped out a strategy, banning the PAP force from running beside its own police officers when it passes through Nagano. And all of that precedes the most controversial passage ofall: an ascent of Mount Everest in May followed by a tour of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, the scene of rioting in March.

The focus on Chinese state television for the past week has been on the larger crowds of well-wishers who lined the route of the torch relay and showed nothing of the protests, although commentators did mention "vile" disruptive elements. After disturbances in Paris, the communist newspaper The People's Daily led with stirring reports of a disabled athlete who fought to keep the "sacred flame" alight against the threat of Tibetan "splittists". In China, where all areas of media activity are tightly controlled by the government, where dissent is forbidden and can result in a jail sentence, the Olympic torch relay has been portrayed as an outstanding success so far. The coverage on the official news agency, Xinhua, has shown mostly smiling athletes and civic leaders passing the torch. The news reports quote leaders and passers-by wishing Beijing well.

Ever since Beijing was granted the Games in 2001, there has been an automatic assumption that security would be no problem for the Chinese authorities, who have a lengthy track record of keeping the streets safe and a lid on dissent. Public demonstrations of protest in China are illegal and China is ruthlessly efficient at dealing with protest within its borders, as was seen in Tibet last month and in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

China is freer now than it has ever been. It has the biggest number of internet users in the world, and its citizens enjoy more liberty than they ever did under the emperors or under the Communist Party before or during the Cultural Revolution. They have money in their pockets and they can express their views relatively openly on the streets. That said, the Chinese government is deadly serious when it comes to containing public displays of dissent at the Olympics.

Last summer, dozens of security guards with metal pipes beat up a group of construction workers at the National Stadium, centrepiece of the Olympic Games, who were having a cigarette break in breach of a strict no smoking rule. More recently, Beijing claimed to have uncovered a plot by Muslim separatists in Xinjiang to sabotage the celebrations with suicide bombings and kidnappings.

Asked on US television on Friday whether he wanted the world to boycott the Beijing Games, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, said no before sending the message to China: "We are not against you – and I'm not seeking separation." Chinese President Hu Jintao said he was ready to meet the Dalai Lama but accused him of trying to "ruin the Beijing Olympics". He said talks could open only if he desisted from trying to "split the motherland" and "incite violence". President Hu said: "Our conflict with the Dalai clique is not an ethnic problem, not a religious problem, nor a human rights problem. It is a problem of either preserving national unity or splitting the motherland."

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, who visited Beijing this week for planning meetings, was pressed on whether he could help to bring the two sides together, but ruled out an intervention. He said: "This is the line we do not have to cross. This is a political matter in which the IOC cannot enter. This is a sovereign matter for China to decide."

Focus has also centred on world leaders who may or may not be at August's opening ceremony. Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be there – even if both are insisting this does not amount to a boycott. US President George Bush has been left with a dilemma. John McCain, the Republican senator has already said he would not go unless China cleaned up its act on human rights, while Democrat candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have called on Bush to swerve the opening ceremony.

Bush, who needs Chinese help to confront Burma's military junta and North Korea's nuclear programme, has indicated he will go and that it will allow him to put concerns directly to President Hu. His former Asia adviser Michael Green said: "The problem with a boycott is you end up taking 1.3 billion Chinese – who have different views of democracy, of the United States, of human rights, but all want the Olympics to be successful – and you turn them all against the United States."

The Chinese government also has a balancing act on security. If it reacts in too severe a fashion, China risks the ire of the international community. Appear too soft on the terrorist threat, and it risks being labelled incompetent and unstable. More than half a million foreign visitors are expected for the Olympics, and two million Chinese, so if the skirmishes around the torch relay prove to be a prelude to bigger protests, the scope for an international incident is there