China's Would-Be Protesters Denied

Ge Yifei, right, says she was not allowed to apply for a protest permit. She and friend Xu Pingli want to protest a developer and their local government.
Ge Yifei, right, says she was not allowed to apply for a protest permit. She and friend Xu Pingli want to protest a developer and their local government. (By Ariana Eunjung Cha -- The Washington Post)
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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

SUZHOU, China, Aug. 5 -- China announced late last month that it would permit protests during the Olympics in specially designated zones, as long as demonstrators first secured permits. The process has not proved that simple.

Instead, many would-be protesters say they are being discouraged from staying in Beijing for the Games or flat-out denied permits. Others say they have decided against applying because they view the process as a farce -- one that's meant only to collect information about dissenters.

The difficulties involved in obtaining permits come as little surprise to human rights groups, which note that protests are difficult if not impossible to stage in China under normal circumstances, let alone during one of the most sensitive moments in the country's modern history. They say the "protest pens" being set in Beijing parks are part of China's Potemkin-village-like display for the Summer Games, which open Friday.

Among those who have tried to secure a permit is Ge Yifei, a 48-year-old doctor of Chinese medicine from this city in China's eastern Jiangsu province. Ge, who is involved in a property development dispute with local officials, recently traveled to Beijing to submit an application to protest. On Friday, she was in the middle of an interview with a Public Security Bureau officer when four beefy men surrounded her.

"Why did you come here?" the largest demanded with an accent that clearly identified him as being from her home town. "What do you want?"

Ge soon realized what was going on: The men had been dispatched 640 miles by her local government to make sure she didn't get a permit. When she began to elaborate on her situation, they told her to go home. When she tried to leave the office to go sightseeing instead, they blocked her path.

"I was a little afraid," Ge recalled. She said she turned to the Beijing officer and asked if she had to go with the men. He nodded yes. "There were four of them. They were big. What could I do?"

According to government guidelines, protesters seeking a permit must report to the Public Security Bureau five days before their planned demonstration and present identification along with a written application. They must fill out a form listing all participants in the protest, contact numbers and a summary of slogans that will be used during the demonstration. Foreigners need to follow similar steps but must file their documents with the border entry and exit administration.

Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said he had not heard of any group getting approval yet. He suggested, however, that some would probably get the go-ahead.

The government wants "to allow a number of people to protest simply because it would be embarrassing to have these parks standing empty," he said.

The challenge for those applying is that, according to Chinese law, anything deemed "harmful" to the state could be grounds for denial. In addition, any protests related to Tibet are explicitly forbidden. There is nothing preventing officials from politicizing the protests and picking and choosing those that they think will put the best face on for Beijing, Bequelin said.

Vincent Brossel, who is in charge of the Asia-Pacific desk for the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders, said applying for a protest permit is fraught with risk for applicants. Even before the run-up to the Games, Chinese were sometimes arrested or beaten for traveling to Beijing to petition central government officials.

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