China's Choreographed Detentions

Kortney Blythe greets the Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition at Los Angeles International Airport.
Kortney Blythe greets the Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition at Los Angeles International Airport. (By Nick Ut -- Associated Press)
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 15, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 14 -- As he sat munching Kentucky Fried Chicken with his captors at a Beijing police station last week, the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney couldn't help thinking that he was going to be used as a star in an upcoming Chinese propaganda film.

Along with two other Americans, Mahoney had been dragged from Tiananmen Square just a couple of hours earlier, as they attempted to unfurl a "Jesus Christ Is King" banner and protest human rights abuses in China, including forced abortions. Such public expressions of belief are illegal in this country.

Now Mahoney and the others were being subjected to a classic good-cop, bad-cop interrogation routine, in this case augmented with official Chinese photographers. With the good cop in charge, out came the cameras, recording everything. When the bad cop came in, no shutters clicked.

"I was thinking, 'Oh, my goodness. I can see it now. The Chinese, accused of harsh and brutal tactics against human rights protesters, show that they serve KFC and tea to their prisoners.' They wanted to document our treatment," Mahoney said in a telephone interview after he returned to Washington this week, the Chinese visa in his passport stamped with red ink: Expelled, Aug. 7, 2008.

Before the Olympic Games opened, Chinese leaders publicly exhorted their 100,000-plus security team in Beijing to guard against public demonstrations that could mar China's international image.

The focus of their strategy for handling protests by foreigners, emerging now after about half a dozen small-scale incidents, seems to be to limit the force used to subdue participants -- especially in an age of cellphone cameras and YouTube -- while documenting any gentle treatment in custody. Those detained, some of them seasoned religious and political activists who expect arrest, said another police goal is to get them to admit they broke a Chinese law against disturbing public order.

The Beijing Public Security Bureau information office has declined to comment on specific cases, except to say its officers take action when anyone, including foreigners, is "conducting activities against Chinese law."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a regular press briefing on Wednesday that "just as in other countries, assemblies, processions and demonstrations must be held according to relevant legal regulations and procedures, and shall not be carried out without approval from relevant authorities."

The Olympics have long been seen by protesters as an opportunity to air their grievances against host countries. Many host countries, in turn, have tried to contain demonstrations by setting aside special protest zones, as China has done. But in Beijing, there have been no reports of anyone using the "protest pens," and some Chinese who have tried to obtain permits to do so have been detained.

Unwilling to detain foreign protesters for long periods, the Chinese have decided instead to hustle them out of the country. Their strategy is not without precedent. During the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norwegian authorities deported 12 Americans who were apparently planning an antiabortion protest. During the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, two American sprinters were expelled after bowing their heads and saluting in a nod to black power on the medal stand. So far in Beijing, no athlete has attempted a political statement on the stand.

But Beijing has shown exceptional concern about its image, according to those deported so far.

"They had an extreme commitment to order and appearance," said Mahoney, a veteran activist who directs the antiabortion Christian Defense Coalition.

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