By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 24, 2008
BEIJING, July 23 -- Beijing will set up specially designated protest zones in three public parks during next month's Olympics, a top security official for the Games announced Wednesday.
But Hyde Park Corner it will not be.
Protesters will still be required to apply in advance for approval to demonstrate, prompting some to dismiss the city's move as an empty gesture.
"It's just a show for the foreigners to make it look like we have free speech," said Wang Zhenjiang, a 48-year-old Beijing resident unhappy with the compensation offered in exchange for evicting him from his home. "They will only approve applications from those people who make them look good."
At a news conference Wednesday, the Olympic Organizing Committee's security director, Liu Shaowu, said "protest pens" will be set up in the 115-acre World Park in southwestern Beijing's Fengtai district, in the Purple Bamboo Park in the western Haidian district, and in Ritan Park in the downtown embassy district.
Liu did not make clear who will be allowed to protest in the parks -- Chinese, foreigners or both -- or whether spontaneous but peaceful protests by foreigners will be tolerated if they occur elsewhere.
The protest zones, reminiscent of areas set aside for demonstrators in previous Olympics, including in Salt Lake City and Athens, represent the first concrete response by China to the prospect of clashes with foreign activists who have vowed to make their voices heard when the Games open in two weeks.
China's Communist Party has little tolerance for potential threats to stability. Street protests are rare here, although there have been riots in the countryside over illegal land seizures and euphemistic "strolls" by middle-class urbanites upset over the environmental impact of government policies.
In the run-up to the Games, authorities have jailed dissidents, warned activists not to cause trouble, closed bars frequented by foreigners, and deported or denied visas to people connected with groups critical of Chinese policy in Tibet and on the issue of Darfur.
The move to set aside protest areas is in line with Beijing's promises to the International Olympic Committee to adhere to Olympic traditions such as free expression outside sporting venues.
When Beijing was bidding for the Games in 2001, Olympic Organizing Committee Vice President Wang Wei, then secretary of the bid committee, said, "If you want to demonstrate, an application will be required, you'll be designated to a certain place and time, and you can do it, no problem."
On Wednesday, Liu referred to both the Olympic Charter, which bans political and religious propaganda in Olympic venues, and China's law governing assemblies, demonstrations and protests, passed in October 1989.
That law requires that requests be made five days in advance and bars applications that harm the country's unity, sovereignty and integrity. Applications advocating separatism and applicants who cannot prove permanent or long-term residency are forbidden, apparently ruling out protests by pro-Tibet groups or evictees and homeless petitioners.
Despite the restrictions, several Beijing-based rights lawyers said they took hope from the announcement and are planning to test it immediately, even if it is unclear who might be allowed to apply and how.
Jill Savitt, executive director of Dream for Darfur, was less optimistic. "Unless the media will be there, too, I don't think you'll see too many protesters. Advocates will be where reporters are, to make sure their voices are heard," she said.
Liu Xiaobao, a dissident writer in Beijing who was recently detained briefly by police, called the protest pens a move to preempt criticism of China's human rights record.
"It's neither a fake show nor a sign of progress," Liu said. "It's just a temporary measure to deal with the possibility that many foreigners who come for the Olympics might want to protest."
Researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Liu contributed to this report.