- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2008

BEIJING | Protesting during the Beijing Olympics should be easy.

Before the games began, Beijing’s Olympic Organizing Committee announced that people would have the right to protest in designated zones inside three public parks in Beijing - a surprise decision, given China’s obsession with security and unyielding intolerance to open criticism.

Yet not a grunt of discontent has been heard in any of the three parks.

It’s the classic Catch-22. You are free to protest, but you need a permit. The public security bureau is not issuing permits and is instead detaining some Chinese who dare to submit an application form until the end of the Olympics, seemingly reflecting critics’ fears that the parks were merely political traps.

“The protest application process clearly isn’t about giving people greater freedom of expression, but making it easier for the police to suppress it,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch reported Wednesday that a Chinese activist from southern Fujian province, Ji Suzun, 58, had been detained by plainclothes security agents after going back to a Beijing police station to check on the status of his application to protest against local government corruption.

Four applicants are known to have been detained, including Zhang Wei, a Beijing resident who planned to protest the demolition of her courtyard home in the ancient neighborhood of Qianmen.

Ge Yifei, a well-known property rights advocate from the city of Suzhou, said she was trying to fill out an application when officials from her hometown showed up to escort her back to the train station.

And the authorities have not scrimped on exceptions. Police can reject a protest if it is deemed to “harm national, social and collective interests,” “national unity” or “public order” - abstract terms designed to cover pretty much anything of the government’s choosing.

Tibetan groups never even entertained the idea of applying.

“The idea that a Tibetan could even safely apply for a permit to protest during the Beijing Olympics is a sad joke,” said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, shortly after the protest venues were announced.

Not even groups wanting to protest for the glory of the motherland have been granted permission.

An application by the China Federation of Defending Diaoyutai Islands, a citizens group that supports China’s claim to the islands that are under the control of Japan, was refused permission to protest.

Government officials are thought to fear an outpouring of nationalistic sentiment directed at wartime foe Japan is not in line with the Olympic spirit.

When questioned repeatedly about the protest parks at a press conference last week, Wang Wei, executive vice president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, said the mere fact China had set up protest areas for its citizens during the games showed the country was on the right track.

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