HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- China will open its borders to a host of international visitors next year for the Olympic Games, but it may be strife within the country that causes the greatest security worries, human rights groups say.
Policemen using anti riots gears perform anti-terrorism drills in Guangzhou, China, in December 2006.
Estimates vary widely on the number of athletes, spectators and tourists that will flock to China in 2008. Chinese media, citing the Beijing Tourism Administration, recently reported that about 290,000 visitors will need accommodations during the Olympics. But Hong Kong media have reported that the total number of visitors to China during the Olympics period could reach 1.7 million.
Whatever the figure, analysts expect some staged protest, at some point during the 2008 Games.
"Certainly there will be people who will go and try to unroll a banner," says Nicholas Bequelin, an Asia region researcher for Human Rights Watch. "But when you have overwhelming force you can do things pretty softly. If it's five police over one protester it can be easily contained," he says.
"The really hard demonstrations to control are ones [where] the police are not in an overwhelming position, [where there are] maybe 500 demonstrators to 200 police."
China already has a very sophisticated system in place that monitors major political protest movements it considers a threat, such as Tibetan separatists and Tiananmen-linked pro-democracy groups, says Bequelin, who is based in Hong Kong. "The numbers [of foreign protesters who will successfully gain entry] will be so small the impact will not be significant," he says. "[On the] political side they already have a pretty firm hand."
With that in mind, Bequelin believes it is unlikely that foreign protesters will be able to enter the country in "boat-loads" without being detected at the borders. Instead, he says, the government is more likely to be concerned with people living in China who have grievances over social policies.
"The dissent will come from within and [from] the social end [of the spectrum]," Bequelin says.
Riots are now becoming increasingly common across the country, Bequelin says. Early in July, for example, more than 10,000 protestors took to the streets on Chongqing over the handling of a high school stabbing.
Civilian discord does not come as a surprise to security analysts and China observers.
"The increase in social unrest is in part due to the serious institutional problems in China," says Carl Minzner, an international affairs fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, who is based in the United States. "[China] is lacking alternative channels for people to voice grievances."
Minzner expects that such groups of disgruntled Chinese may use the Olympics as an opportunity to publicize their issues. But the chances of a major protest taking place in Beijing during the Games will be slim, he believes.
"We expect China to maintain very strict security measures to mitigate major disturbances," Minzner says. "They [Beijing police forces] are used to dealing with these kinds of security issues. Every spring when the National People's Congress meeting is being held, tough measures are taken to ensure no protests can disrupt the proceedings inside." 'Tough measures' can mean anything from police monitoring to house arrests to installing undercover officers at suspected protest venues.
However, keeping a tight rein on protesters will be more difficult if protests happen outside Beijing's city limits. In an interview with mainland television network, Phoenix TV, Ma Zhenchuan, the general commander of Security Command Center, the agency overseeing China's Olympics security operations, admitted that maintaining social order within the capital was going to occupy much of the government's resources.
"Beijing covers an area of 16,000 square kilometers," Ma said in the interview which was later published on the Command Center's Web site. "[Beijing] has nearly 16 million residents. It is our most difficult problem to tackle these social order problems."
Ma said the Security Command Center will set up four networks to deal with social disorder -- a patrol network, community network, public security network and internal network. The Security Command Center is not releasing any real details about what role these networks will actually play. But one thing Ma did appear to suggest was that any security operations could be more relaxed outside of the urban center.
"There are a lot of mountain areas and farmland in Beijing. You can neglect these areas," said Ma. "We will focus on the densely populated and target areas."
Even further outside Beijing, in the city of Tianjin, which is hosting some of the Games' soccer events, things could be even more relaxed. According to Reuters, Senior Colonel Zhang Qingjiang of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Brigade 196, who is involved in the Olympic security preparations, said in an interview with foreign reporters that the PLA will not be out on the streets during the Games.
"Our main role is to protect Olympic venues and maintain social stability," he was quoted as saying. "We won't be on the streets. We'll be at the venues."
Despite China's internal social problems, the perceived threat from international terrorism will still rank high among Olympic-related security concerns in a post 9/11 world.
"The Olympics is different from any other international sporting event," points out William Overholt, director of the Center of Asia Pacific Policy at Rand Corporation, a non-profit think tank based in the United States. "It is very visible. The sheer number of people participating is huge, so every [security] issue will become more dramatic."
He adds that it would be a mistake to discount the threat that Islamic extremist groups such as al Qaeda could pose to Beijing and points to the independence movement in the largely Muslim northwestern province of Xinjiang as a potential breeding ground for Islamic extremists.
"China has elements of Islamic extremism," Overholt says. "There is a substantial Islamic population in Xinjiang that are radicalized to fight for independence."
Beijing authorities have made it clear that they intend to take security seriously. While the government has not stated how much it will spend on security, the figure may exceed the amount Greece spent for the 2004 Games, which, according to a recent Reuters news report, was more than 1 billion Euros (US$1.37 billion).
The Chinese government has so far scheduled a total of 26 tests this year on its security measures, and it plans to deploy as many as 80,000 police personnel during the Olympics itself, according to Chinese media reports. And it is worth noting that China possesses the world's largest standing army. E-mail to a friend