China, protesters may play cat-and-mouse during Olympics

Paramilitary police march during their oath taking ceremony to ensure safety during the Beijing Olympics, July 23, 2008
Paramilitary police march during their oath taking ceremony to ensure safety during the Beijing Olympics, July 23, 2008 Andy Wong / AP

BEIJING — Activists savor the chance to steal the spotlight during the Olympic Games and air their grievances. They'd like to unfurl banners, streak across playing fields and hack into stadium screens.

China is even more determined to stop them.

One of the more interesting events in this summer's Aug. 8-24 Summer Olympics isn't even a sanctioned sport: It may be the cat-and-mouse game between activists and police, or between opinionated Olympic medalists eager to mouth off and officials ready to stifle them. These are the potential "demonstration" sports of the most politically charged Olympic Games in decades.

Authorities are in top form. They've locked down China's capital and put a number of domestic troublemakers under house arrest. They've deployed 100,000 special security agents and beefed up the number of closed-circuit television cameras to follow the movements of anyone considered even slightly suspicious.

To curb foreign activists, China has slowed the issuing of visas, making it harder for anyone to slip in, and sent many foreigners without legal papers scurrying out of the country.

Still, there's a nearly endless list of groups that want to slip before the cameras in front of the up to 4 billion global television viewers who are likely to tune in to part of the games. Activist groups that oppose China's policies in Sudan's Darfur region, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, Zimbabwe or in China's own Tibet and Xinjiang regions all would like to grab some Olympics limelight.

So would followers of Falun Gong, the religious sect that's banned in China as an "evil cult," and underground Christian groups that are angry about what they consider a lack of religious freedom.

Plenty of other Chinese also have grievances. They include urban residents forcibly relocated from their homes, migrant workers denied pay by unscrupulous businessmen, citizens affected by official corruption and even investors angry over a precipitous stock-market decline.

Several foreign activist groups said that China's security lockdown wouldn't stop them from having a presence during the Olympics, although they remain cagey in order to avoid detection. China's multiple blankets of security affect not only Beijing but also the four co-host cities: Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenyang and Qinhuangdao. Hong Kong, where equestrian events will take place, is likely to be far freer.

"Tibet groups such as our own are planning a whole range of activities during the Olympics," said Matt Whitticase, a spokesman for the Free Tibet Campaign in London.

Beijing recently announced that it would set up protest pens in three parks far from the main Olympics venues: World Park in southwestern Beijing's Fengtai district, Purple Bamboo Park in the western Haidian district and Ritan Park in an embassy district. Protesters will need permits from local police before they hoist placards, and must follow strict rules.

China's ruling Communist Party frowns on protests, viewing them as a threat to public stability and a challenge to its authority. In the spring of 2004, China allowed small anti-Japanese protests but stopped them cold when they turned into bottle-throwing melees.

International terrorism remains a perennial threat at Olympic Games, especially in Beijing, where some 80 heads of state and government, including President Bush, will arrive as observers. China has become shriller in warning that terrorist groups plan to disrupt the Summer Games. Indeed, small-scale terrorism has unfolded in recent months.

Last week, a group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party released a video claiming responsibility for several recent small bomb attacks and threatening to disrupt the Olympics. It claimed a bombing of a bus May 5 in Shanghai and two near-simultaneous blasts on buses July 21 in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, that killed two people and wounded 14.

Curiously, after months of warning that Tibetan or Muslim militants were planning suicide attacks, China denied that terrorists were behind the bus bombings, saying that there were criminal, but not political, motivations for the attacks.

Some analysts say that China's warnings of terrorism are a pretext for cracking down on domestic critics. In a new report, Amnesty International says that the intensifying repression of dissidents is designed "to present an image of 'stability' and 'harmony' to the outside world."

Most activists plan to stick to peaceful, even prosaic, ways to get their messages across.

Activists in Australia gave that nation's Olympians bags of pins, buttons, temporary tattoos of the Tibetan flag and T-shirts that read "I support human rights" in English and Mandarin.

German Olympic athletes have been given T-shirts with slogans such as "Fair Games," "Sport for Human Rights," "Celebrate Humanity," "Free Tibet" and "Free China."

China's tactics in responding to any activist — or even such a T-shirt-clad athlete — who steps in front of the television cameras certainly will draw a lot of global news attention.

"This comes down to how China is going to react, how modestly or greatly, in front of the cameras. This is what the world wants to see," said Jill Savitt, the director of Dream for Darfur, a New York-based group that's lobbying against China's support for the regime in oil-rich Sudan, where widespread killings are taking place in the Darfur region.

Savitt said that China's pre-Olympics crackdown underscored the nature of its government.

"China wanted untarnished games, a seamless debut on the global stage. They didn't get it," she said.

It remains to be seen whether China will honor its pledge for unfettered news-media freedom during the period surrounding the games. China said earlier this month that international broadcasters wouldn't have to use a "time delay."

"It's the $64,000 question. Will reporters be allowed to do their jobs without restrictions?" asked John Barton, the director of sport for the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, which represents broadcasters in 57 countries. "If people are protesting, if people are waving flags, which is against the (Olympic) rules, reporters are going to want to cover it."

Another of the many wild cards for China may be any vigorous statements by the Olympians themselves. China has called on athletes to refrain from political expression and "promote friendship among the peoples of the world."

Bush recently called on U.S. Olympians to be "ambassadors of freedom."

But Olympians have on occasion used their moments of glory to promote causes, most notably in Mexico City in 1968, when U.S. track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a "black power" salute, calling attention to the plight of black Americans. While they were strongly criticized at the time, some see them today as heroes.

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