Olympic Protests: Low-Key Response

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Nir Elias / REUTERS

Security guards drag away a Tibet activist on Aug. 13 in Beijing

As protests go it was hardly a blockbuster. A pair of demonstrators attempted to unfurl a banner on an overpass. The police stopped them, and as security guards were distracted by this, five people barricaded themselves behind bicycles at a nearby park entrance. But the time and place were symbolic — in Beijing, just a short distance from the Olympic stadium and the Water Cube, where just two hours earlier Michael Phelps became the world's most decorated Olympian.

Beijing has spent years preparing itself for the Games. And while the city's revamped infrastructure was mostly finished far in advance, how authorities would handle the pressure of protesters in the spotlight of the global media remained an open question. They got off to a rocky start, roughing up several journalists during the chaotic final round of ticket buying. Yet less than a week into the Games it appears that the authorities, while still highly sensitive to demonstrations on Chinese soil, are learning to adapt. They've used greater restraint than in the past when handling protests, aware, perhaps, that a harsh response only gives a story momentum.

That's not to say the government hasn't taken aggressive measures to crack down on domestic dissent. Strict visa policies have kept many activists out of the country, most notably former U.S. Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek, who has worked internationally to stop the bloodshed in Sudan's Darfur region. Among the many interest groups that have criticized Beijing's policies, overseas Tibetan rights activists have been the busiest protest group during the Games. They've held at least five demonstrations in high-profile spots around the city, and each time they have been detained and deported. "What's happening in Beijing is not an indication of a new, kinder, gentler Chinese government ... a kinder, gentler authoritarian regime," says Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet. "It's a carefully scripted and controlled image they want to project to the world."

For the group's Aug. 13 protest, five activists dressed in "Free Tibet" T shirts locked a row of bicycles to the entrance of the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park in the north of Beijing, which they used to keep police from dragging them away. Security guards grabbed their Tibetan flags but allowed them to remain on the spot for about 10 minutes as they chanted slogans and conducted interviews with foreign journalists. "The Chinese people are great, but shame on the Chinese government because they are lying to the people of China," said Pema Yoko, 25, a Tibetan-Japanese woman from the U.K. "Tibetans are going through psychological torture, physical torture to the extent that people are committing suicide."

A few dozen Chinese gathered around to watch. One woman with a Chinese flag painted on her cheek giggled with her friend as Yoko spoke. A short while later, one man called Yoko a "hoodlum," while another said loudly that the assembled journalists were "shameless." The security guards bundled off the demonstrators to a small office. A British television reporter, John Ray of Independent Television News, was also taken away in a police van. Ray says the police have accused him of trying to unfurl a Tibetan flag, which he denies. Ray held his press pass out the window as the van drove away.

By Chinese standards, it was a calm response. "Those foreign protesters appear to have been handled with a relative level of restraint by security forces," says Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, an NGO based in New York City. "In the eyes of the Chinese government, the priority isn't to punish those individuals — they want them removed from the scene and off their hands. They're an embarrassment."

The same afternoon, the city's three official protest sites — Ritan Park, Beijing World Park and the Zizhuyuan Park — were quiet. Last month, the head of security for the Olympic organizing committee announced that Beijing would set aside three parks specifically for citizens to publicly air their Olympic grievances. The rules require that those wishing to protest apply with the police five days in advance. In Ritan, retirees walked along the tree-shaded walks and young couples played with children on the grass. But there were no demonstrators, and a park employee said there had been none since the protest zones were announced. Thus far the protest zones — the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park, where the Tibet protest was staged, is not one of the officially sanctioned locations — have yet to report any demonstrations.

But while foreign demonstrators have simply been sent out of the country, domestic activists face much harsher scrutiny. Human Rights Watch says there have been at least five cases of the authorities blocking Chinese citizens from staging protests during the Games. A legal activist from southeastern Fujian province was arrested on Aug. 11 after applying to protest corruption and official abuses of power in Beijing. Ji Sizun, 58, hasn't been seen since, the group says. "He posed no threat to social stability or harmony. He wasn't challenging the legitimacy of the government or the Chinese Communist Party," says Kine. "He has a beef about the way the country is being run and where it is going." During these harmonious Olympics, such opinions can be especially difficult to voice.