If visitors happen to come across a large protest—and there are tens of thousands every year—foreigners should steer well clear of them, advises Paul Ruden, senior vice president at the American Society of Travel Agents.
"I think the message [of the regulations] for Americans is they ought to be careful and be respectful when you are there. If you are there to see the Olympics, go to the Olympics, and go see the sights and stuff, but [China] is not a place to engage in political advocacy and so on, without running risks. Their culture is different from ours in that respect," he explained.
But where exactly that line falls is not always clear. Chinese regulations are typically vague—critics say catch-all—especially clauses on "harming national security," but also those banning displays of religious, political or ethnic slogans or banners. It is unclear, for instance, if those apply to T-shirts.
First time visitors are very likely to rub against China’s authoritarianism, one way or another.
It starts with getting a visa. You can only apply after youhave bought plane tickets (often non-refundable) and a hotel room, a practice in place in only a few other countries, including Russia, India and Brazil, says O’Malley.
Once in-country, movements are closely monitored. Hotels report all guests and if you happen to stay with a friend (even a foreigner) they have to report to the local police within 24 hours.
But those, like most of the Olympic regulations, are already standard practice in China.
Recently though the country’s security apparatus has been gone into high gear. There are plenty of ripple effects.
"Our understanding is that there are going to be ... restrictions—what that actually means we don’t know—on the movement of private cars during the Olympics," says Hertz spokesman Richard Broome. "Even if you could rent a car [there aren't many] it is unclear where you could go with your chauffeur-driven car."
If visitors do get into trouble for, say, not carrying a passport or snoozing in a public park [against "public hygiene" and "civilizing appearances"], the police you are likely to encounter have been trained to be nice by WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather.
That’s a far cry from what locals get, says Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, who notes that many riots are provoked by officials who "have repeatedly demonstrated their incompetence in handling incipient crises.”
So for all the heavy-handed preparation, officials are still worried about protests.
"They just don’t want a bunch of protestors ... and then all of a sudden to be hit upon the head by a bunch of Chinese riot cops, and some person from Peoria gets stuck in the middle of this thing," explains Blake Fleetwood, of Cook-American Express, a travel representative of American Express.
"At the end of the day, I don’t think for most ordinary people going there for the Olympics that these things would be a material interference with their having the experience they are looking for," insists Ruden.
Just in case, he hopes the State Department is adding consular officers during the Games.