Would-Be Beijing Protesters Punished

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Ng Han Guan / AP

Wu Dianyuan and Wang Xiuying, left, wait to apply for a protest permit outside a public security bureau as a Chinese police officer asks them to move on.

Two Beijing women in their late 70s have been sentenced to a year of administrative detention after applying to protest in the Chinese capital's Olympic protest zones. Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, are former neighbors who are upset about being forcibly evicted from their homes in 2001. This month, they visited Beijing police five times to apply to hold a demonstration in one of the officially sanctioned protest areas established for the Olympic Games, but instead of being granted that right, on Aug. 17 they were ordered to serve one year of "reeducation-through-labor," says Wu's son Li Xuehui. "I'm extremely angry," he says. "For a common person to be sentenced to this, it's very sad."

Ahead of the Games, Beijing's Olympic security chief announced that three parks in the capital would be set aside for protests in August. But would-be demonstrators must first apply with police, and so far no permission has been given to stage demonstrations. On Aug. 18 the state-run Xinhua News Service announced that officials had received 77 applications, but none had been approved. Two were suspended due to lack of information, one rejected because it violated local laws, and the remaining 74 "were properly addressed by relevant authorities or departments through consultations," Xinhua reported. A small number of foreign protesters, most frequently Tibetan rights activists, have staged demonstrations outside the protest zones in recent weeks. They've all been quickly detained by police and deported.

The case of Wu and Wang reveals the degree to which authorities will go to prevent public dissent during the Olympics. The women will be allowed to serve their sentence outside of an official detention camp, according to Human Rights in China, the New-York based NGO that first publicized the two women's case. But they could be sent to a camp if they don't follow the authorities' instructions. Reeducation-through-labor is a form of detention for up to four years used to punish relatively minor criminal activity like prostitution and religious activity banned by the state, like practicing Falun Gong. The China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based human rights NGO, estimated last year that the system has more than 300,000 detainees. "There is an overarching message of intimidation," says Kenneth Lim, Hong Kong program manager for Human Rights in China. "It's not restricted to a particular issue or particular age group or segment of the population. As long as they are viewed by authorities as potential troublemakers, there is this pretty relentless effort to silence or otherwise neutralize the form of dissent."

Officials from the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games and the International Olympic Committee defended the protest zones during a Aug. 20 press conference. "We are actually quite happy to hear that many of the 77 cases have been resolved," said Wang Wei, the executive vice president and secretary general of BOCOG. "Now the resolution of these protests was through dialog and communication. And this is also a part of ...Chinese culture."