Beijing's Complaint-Free Protest Zones

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Ng Han Guan / AP

A Chinese girl poses near a replica of the US Capitol Building at the World Park in Beijing, China, one of three parks designated for protesters during next month's Olympics.

The track stars have their Bird's Nest; the cyclists their velodrome; and the swimmers their Water Cube. Now the protesters who are certain to appear at the Beijing Olympics have their corners, too. On Wednesday, the security director for the Beijing Olympics announced that three sites in city parks will be set aside for demonstrations during the Games.

Just how the demonstration zones will work remains unclear. Chinese citizens have a legal right to protest, but they must first apply for permission from their local Public Security Bureau. Such requests are rarely granted, and most demonstrations in China don't have official sanction. The zones were met with skepticism from human rights advocates. Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with the NGO Human Rights Watch, called it "a protest pen" meant to segregate demonstrators. "It's a system that has been set in place to deflect criticism about the lack of freedom to protest, the lack of freedom of assembly and demonstration in China," he says.

Protest zones have been imposed in other cities during international events. Beijing set up a similar site during the World Conference on Women in 1995. That zone was in the Great Wall resort town of Huairou, 15 miles away from where the conference was being held. The Olympic protest zones — in Ritan Park near the city's eastern embassy district; the Beijing World Park, which has replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Egypt's pyramids; and the Zizhu Park near the northwestern university district — are within the city, but far enough from the Olympic venues that they're easy for spectators to avoid.

While the rules of the protest zones have not yet been spelled out, it seems likely that demonstrators will have to register. That makes it unlikely that rallies for sensitive causes like Tibetan autonomy or the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement will be approved. "In the scenario where there is still a need to obtain prior approval it's pretty clear that nobody will get a permit if they demonstrate for things that China considers criminal," says Bequelin.

How Beijing authorities would handle protest has been a big question ahead of the Games. Last August, when the city marked one year before the Games, a few groups held protests. Reporters Without Borders rallied outside the offices of the Beijing Olympics organizing committee with posters of the Olympic rings as handcuffs to protest the jailing of journalists. Students for a Free Tibet unfurled a banner on the Great Wall outside the city. The police response to both was seen as clumsy and heavy-handed, a sign that for all Beijing's infrastructure preparation, Chinese authorities are still uneasy with demonstrations and ill equipped to handle them under an intense media spotlight.

Since then the pressure has only increased. Aggressive protests by critics of Beijing during the Olympic torch run touched off a nationalist storm in China. That sentiment cooled some after the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, when patriotic ardor was directed at helping the millions left homeless. But demonstrations during the Games could reignite it, says Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming book Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia. "Protests by foreigners would infuriate the Chinese and only fuel their reactive nationalist view that the West is trying to ruin China's moment in the sun," he says.

But overseas activists are likely to try regardless. Canadian Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Student for a Free Tibet, was arrested last August as she tried to make her way to a countdown event in Tiananmen Square. Tethong, who had been blogging in China about the status of Tibetans, was expelled from the country along with six foreign activists who hung a banner that read, "One World, One Dream; Free Tibet 2008" on the Great Wall. She says Tibetan activists will try again to conduct public protests during the Games. "For us it's a historic moment," she says. "It's an opportunity to raise the Tibetan crisis of human rights and freedom and to bring it to the international community and the Chinese leadership."

In his announcement Liu Shaowu, the Games' security director, reiterated that the International Olympic Committee's charter states that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" is permitted on Olympic grounds. The Beijing organizers may still be faced with athletes who want to raise issues. Joey Cheek, a gold medalist in speed skating in 2006 who is now active in the campaign to end the bloodshed in Darfur, says Olympians can raise political issues during the Games and still act within the rules. Cheek co-founded Team Darfur, a group of athletes that work to raise awareness about the war-torn region of Sudan. The NGO has 46 members who will be completing in Beijing, and some who may call for China to lobby its ally Sudan to bring peace to Darfur. Cheek says he believes the Games are "a force for good," but the hosts have to be able to accept criticism as well as praise. "They've made statements about what a great way for the advancement of human rights, that it would open China to the world, and it would open up more freedoms to its people," he says. "You made that commitment, and you have to live up to it."

For those without an Olympic berth, just making it to Beijing could prove trying. Jean-Francois Julliard, deputy director of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press freedom group that was active in protesting during the international torch relay, says its members had their latest visa applications for China rejected. "They want the Olympic Games to be a big success without any demonstrations or any critical activities," he says. If protesters can't even make it into the country, then Beijing may find its protest zones blissfully complaint free.