In Beijing, little official appetite for antiwar protests

Foreigners rallied against the Iraq war as a Chinese march was canceled after its scope was sharply curtailed.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

While thousands of protesters marching against the war in Iraq have been a common sight from Paris to Seoul, such activity is still a rarity in the People's Republic of China.

But Sunday, in an unusual move for a country wary of mass demonstration - even one whose antiwar message jibes with official sentiment - 200 expatriates were given permission to march in the first government-approved antiwar protest.

It was a different story for a group of Chinese students and intellectuals who had also planned to rally as many as 500 supporters. Organizers said they canceled their march after the Beijing Public Security Bureau gave permission for only 40 marchers, and restricted both their movements and their slogans.

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The contradictory treatment sent a clear message: While authorities may tolerate some organization by foreigners, they remain wary of allowing Chinese to rally in public.

"Foreigners are not a threat," says Chinese march organizer and playwright Zhang Guang Tian. "It's more threatening for Chinese to protest."

The limits of tolerance

Still, the demonstration over the weekend showed the limits of Chinese tolerance. The foreign groups originally asked that 300 protesters be allowed to march in the afternoon on a route that would pass both the British and US Embassies. Instead, just 150 were given permission to march - in the morning, and on a route set by the Beijing Public Security Bureau.

Just before the march, a public-security officer read a list of rules to the foreigners who gathered at Ritan Park in central Beijing.

"Do not throw anything at the embassy. When it is over, leave this area rapidly," the officer said in English.

Holding signs that read, "Shame on you Tony Blair," and "No War," the group chanted "Mei guo hui jia," or "America, go home," as they walked the short distance from the park to the front of the American Embassy.

They were greeted by two American officials who watched the demonstration through an enclosed area at the gate at the embassy. The embassy had issued a warning to all Americans in Beijing a few days earlier, saying they expected the protesters and asked citizens to stay away from the embassy.

Another foreign group from the Beijing USA College of English in suburban Beijing also applied to protest, and was given permission for 10 people to assemble. The police directed them to Ritan Park as well.

"The police were really helpful," said Tody Cezar, a teacher at the College of English who is originally from Boston. "The war is unjustified. It violates human rights. We have to make it stop."

Onlookers were surprised but pleased to see the rally.

"Why is America invading their country?" asked one woman who would only give her surname of Yang. She brought her young grandson to the park. "This should be solved by peaceful means. The ordinary people don't want this war."

Glued to the television

Chinese citizens have been glued to TV screens providing 24-hour coverage of the war. Yang said she and her family make a point to watch it every day.

Her grandson has found the war images disturbing. "The Iraqi children look so sad," he said.

Another onlooker said it was good to see foreigners express their opposition to the war. "They should protest," said Mr. Li, who also withheld his full name. "It's good to show that it is not just Chinese who are opposed to the war, but foreigners, too. This will put more pressure on them to stop."

A few hours later, at the other end of town, about 100 students showed up at Chaoyang Park, the site of their would-be Chinese march.

It was unclear if they knew it had been canceled and came anyway, or simply hadn't heard.

Officers ushered them into the park, away from throngs of reporters, and told them that organizers had cancelled, said Beijing University student Zhang Ting.

As the students left, police urged them to move on. They also confiscated banners after the students displayed them to reporters.

Foreign marchers happy

The foreign marchers said that they were pleased with the cooperation of the police, which they attributed to China's stance on the war. Chinese officials have said since the start of the Iraq war that the conflict should be solved through diplomatic means.

"They were really cooperative," said Robyn Wexler, who is from San Francisco. "A few asked afterward how I felt and if I was personally pleased with police cooperation, and whether I felt safe expressing myself here."

Her Chinese counterparts had a different reaction.

"They said we could only have 40 people. They said you can't go here or there. They said we couldn't say this or that," said organizer Mr. Zhang. "So basically they are preventing us from marching."

"They weren't very nice," said Mr. Zhang of Beijing University.

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