Beijing announces 'protest pens'

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One of the dilemmas the Chinese authorities have been wrestling with as they plan next month’s Olympics has been how to deal with protesters against Beijing’s policies on Tibet or on human rights – to pick two particularly contentious issues.

Today they announced their plan: They will set up “protest pens” in three Beijing parks, where demonstrations may be held so long as they have been previously authorized by the city police. Anything else will be banned.

This, the government hopes, will prove an acceptable compromise between its own tradition of strictly forbidding public demonstrations against official policy and international expectations that Beijing will uphold free speech for visitors.

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But it will be interesting to see who actually ends up using these pens, which are bound to attract heavy media attention, despite the fact they are due to be located in parks between 30 minutes and an hour’s drive from the Olympic Green (on a good traffic day).

Dissatisfied Chinese citizens would hardly be advised to use them: they would be down at the local police station faster than you can say “my rights under the Chinese Constitution.”

And one of the reasons Chinese visas have been so hard to come by recently is that the authorities have been scrutinizing applications especially carefully in order to weed out foreign “threats to the social order” such as Tibet activists or human rights defenders who might cause trouble.

So the competition for police-approved demonstration permits may not be so fierce. Nor is it clear where the “protest pens” are to be set up.

The head of security for BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games - and you had better remember that because I am not going to spell it out every time I post a blog) - Liu Shaowu, listed three parks at a press conference this morning. But, curiously, that list, and the journalist’s question that elicited it, were excised from the official transcript of the press conference carried later on BOCOG’s website.

In the end, protesters seeking some international attention will probably be better off at Tiananmen Square, where they could try to position themselves and their banners just behind NBC correspondents doing their live stand-ups on camera. It seems unlikely that any Chinese policeman would try to haul them off in front of umpteen million viewers.

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