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.
A year ago, Reporters Without Borders drew the ire of the Chinese government when some of its activists unfurled a banner with the Olympic rings as handcuffs in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Since then, Brossel said, China since has become more successful at keeping foreign human rights activists out of the country.
"I would be very pleased to be able to demonstrate in Beijing, but we cannot even get a visa," he said.
Some applicants have been told not to waste their time.
Sang Jun, a 38-year-old former factory worker who lost his 11-year-old son in the Sichuan earthquake in May, said he and other parents from his school, the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School, dispatched representatives to Beijing in late July to inquire about protest permits. He said the group hoped to bring world attention to dangerous construction practices that he believes led to the collapse of so many schools in the region.
But the group's representatives were stopped at Chengdu Airport, Sang said. "The police tore up their tickets," he said. "They said that they would be willing to talk and resolve things after the Olympics."
Then there's the case of the Chinese Civilian Association for Safeguarding the Diaoyu Islands, a nationalist group that advocates a tougher stance by the Chinese government toward Japan and has been accused of being anti-Japanese.
Zhang Likun, a member of the group, said he called the Public Security Bureau at the end of July to ask about the application process. When he explained his group's purpose -- to lobby against the Japanese prime minister's plans to fly a Japanese military plane to China -- he was told his application would be rejected and not to bother applying.
Ge, the would-be protester from Suzhou, said she had been in Beijing for less than two hours when the four men, wearing street clothes and sporting identical brown canvas shoulder bags, found her at the bureau.
For five years, Ge and others had been fighting with the city of Suzhou over development near a luxury apartment building in which they had invested. The investors claimed that the city had violated their rights by paving over the building's extensive garden and razing tennis courts and other recreational facilities to make way for new residences. Ge and other owners said the rental value of their properties plummeted as a result of the city's actions.
The two sides have clashed in lawsuits and demonstrations. At one point, residents smashed the brick walls of the newly constructed buildings with hammers.
On Friday, the men told Ge that they were part of the police force in her home town and that they came to give her some advice. She was in danger in the capital, they said, warning that she would be "captured" by the Beijing police. They insisted that she return home immediately.
Officials from Suzhou's city commission, propaganda office and secretarial department, which processes letters of complaint to high-level officials, said they had not heard about Ge's case and therefore could not comment.
Zhu Jian, a police official in Suzhou who questioned Ge upon her return, said he was "not allowed" to talk about her situation.
Ge said that after she left the Public Security Bureau, she was taken by the men from Suzhou to a hotel.
As she stewed there under virtual house arrest, Ge said she concluded that she could not blame Beijing officials for her troubles. Their local counterparts were responsible instead, she said.
"The central government had a good idea to become more open. They are genuine," she explained. "But my personal feeling is that the lower governments are worried about losing face and don't want the protests."
It wasn't until late Friday afternoon that she told the men she was ready to go home.
They took her to the train station and sent her back to Suzhou. Two new police escorts were waiting for her when the doors slid open 12 hours later.
Researchers Wu Meng and Crissie Ding contributed to this report.