China tightens grip on protesters

‘Protest pens’ have been empty. Those who have sought permission to demonstrate have been detained or harassed.

By , Staff writer

Mr. Hai is the only Chinese citizen to have successfully staged a protest in Beijing during the current Olympic Games, but it only lasted a minute or two before he and his family were swamped by plainclothes policemen.

And he only got that far because he had not bothered to ask for official permission to demonstrate, “so nobody knew we were going” to Ritan Park in the center of the city, said Hai, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of more retribution.

Ritan Park houses one of three “protest pens” that the Chinese authorities have set aside for demonstrations by foreigners or Chinese citizens during the Games, suggesting that this offers a chance for the free speech they had promised for the Olympics.

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One week into the event, however, none of the sites has seen a single officially approved demonstration, and several protest applicants have been jailed, detained, expelled from the capital, or harassed.

The sites’ designation was “one step further to open up and I think it’s a very good gesture” said Wang Wei, vice president of the Beijing Games organizing committee, last week.

The fact that nobody has been allowed to use them, however, and that some people have been punished for trying, “is a step back” says Sara Davis, founder of Asia Catalyst, a US nonprofit that supports human rights activists in Asia. “It is a sad moment and quite disheartening.”

Police spokesmen have refused to say how many applications for protests they have received. Chinese law requires potential protesters to apply five days in advance for permission.

Hai did not do that, he explained, because “I was not protesting against the government or the country.”

His goal, he said, was to draw attention to the way local authorities in his home town of Huiming, in Shandong Province, have refused to compensate his family for confiscating his house.

The morning after the Games’ opening ceremony, Hai and his family went to Ritan Park and raised a cardboard sign. Almost immediately he was set upon by about 20 plainclothes policemen, he said. Only the presence of two foreign reporters, who accompanied him to a taxi, saved him from arrest, he added.

Three days later, however, Hai’s aged mother was questioned for several hours at a police station, and, since then, carloads of plainclothes police have been parked outside his home and his mother’s home, preventing them from leaving.

Other would-be protesters have been treated more harshly. Zhang Wei, who has often protested the destruction of her Beijing home in a redevelopment project, was taken from her home a few days after applying for a protest permit.

She later joined some of her former neighbors at a protest near her old home, and the police have informed her family that she is serving a 30-day sentence for “disturbing the social order,” according to her sister. “As ordinary people we don’t have any rights,” she added. “We are not allowed to file a lawsuit or to sue the government. We can only suffer.”

Tang Xuefen, who applied for a permit on Aug. 5 to protest local corruption in his home province of Henan, has disappeared, and a friend of his, Ji Sizun, a legal activist from Fujian, was last seen being put into an unmarked Buick by plainclothes policemen after going to a Beijing police station to enquire about the status of his own request on Aug. 11, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Other complainants have simply been expelled from Beijing.

Ge Yifei, representing property owners in the southern city of Suzhou who are in dispute with the company that built their homes, registered a protest request on Aug. 1.

While she was still in the police station, she says, four Suzhou policemen who had apparently followed her to Beijing burst in and forced her to go with them. The next day she was forcibly escorted back to Suzhou by train.

A similar fate befell Zhang Dongfang, a leader of a small nationalist group defending China’s rights to the Diaoyu chain of islands, currently occupied by Japan.

After another member of his group enquired about the regulations for holding protests, Mr. Zhang said, “the Hunan police called” from his home province. “They forced me to come back and made it clear it had to do with the Olympics,” he explained.

“They said they had received a call from the Beijing Public Security Bureau,” he added.

No foreign group is known to have applied for official permission to demonstrate. The most visible international activist group here, Students for a Free Tibet, has launched its protests – generally unfurling Tibetan flags or banners demanding Tibetan independence – on streets near the Olympic venues or on Tiananmen Square. The protesters have all been deported.

“We saw the protest pens as a cynical public relations effort, nothing more” says Han Shan, Olympics campaign coordinator for the group. “They are a farce, and the government has been using them essentially as a trap.”

It is unclear whether the designation of the protest parks was ever a serious proposition.

The Beijing police have made no official reference to the proposal since it was first announced last month by Liu Shaowu, head of security for the Olympics’ Chinese organizing committee BOCOG, at a press conference.Nor did the official transcript of Mr. Liu’s comments, carried on BOCOG’s website, contain the names of the three parks that he had specified, suggesting official second thoughts.

Spokesmen for all three of the parks said over the weekend that they had heard nothing from the Beijing police about any plans for demonstrations, and that none had been held.

Zhang Yajun contributed to this story.

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