- 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.

“I think China has been stepping forward, and if you ask the ordinary Chinese on the streets, they will give you the same answer,” he said. “Everybody is happy. People are optimistic about their own future. That is a fact.”

Ritan Park, the most central of the official protest parks and an intriguing choice given that it lies in the middle of the embassy district, was, as usual, a dreamy scene of tai chi and mah-jongg earlier this week.

A red banner bearing a slogan in both Chinese and English urged any would-be protesters not to shatter the peace: “Welcome the Olympic Games with joyfulness and construct a harmonious society.”

The hunt for the protest zone quickly turned into a futile game of cat-and-mouse with security guards and plainclothes police making no attempt to hide their earpieces.

“You don’t want to go looking for that place. There are too many plainclothes police around,” said one concerned park worker, who was sweeping the path.

One picnicking Chinese woman, when asked whether she had heard of the protest area, said: “Never heard of it, but I don’t see why there would be one. China is a great country.”

A young woman sitting on the neighboring bench expressed her approval of the idea, only to clam up at the sight of three security guards straining to hear her comments. “It’s difficult to say,” she said.

Two wired-up plainclothes security agents, metal detectors lying across their laps, sat on a bench chatting with two security guards.

Where’s the park’s protest zone? “There isn’t one,” replied one agent. But the government said there was. “There isn’t one,” he repeated, grinning.

Fifty yards on, at the east entrance to the park, a group of five park-management staff members were manning a desk buried under Beijing tourist maps.

“Oh, yes, our park has a protest zone. Ritan is one of the three official Olympic protest parks,” an enthusiastic young woman said in fluent English.

Where is it? “Sorry, I don’t know its exact location. There haven’t been any protests in this park. Most people who are interested in it are foreign journalists,” she said.

On a wall next to the entrance beside her, another didactic slogan read: “I participate, I contribute, I enjoy.”

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