China's 'protest pens' unused amid arrests, permit denials

People walk about Beijing World Park, an amusement park in Beijing, China,which is one of three in Beijing that have been designated protest areas by the government, but no permits have been issued to hold a protest.
People walk about Beijing World Park, an amusement park in Beijing, China,which is one of three in Beijing that have been designated protest areas by the government, but no permits have been issued to hold a protest. Tim Johnson / MCT

BEIJING — China late last month announced that individuals or groups wanting to demonstrate during the Olympics could go to "protest pens" in three public parks around Beijing.

What China didn't announce was the Catch-22: Protests are allowed but permits aren't available. Getting one would be as likely as beating gold medalist Michael Phelps in a swimming race or outrunning record-holder Tyson Gay in a short sprint.

A tour of the three parks Monday revealed no sign of "protest pens" and no indication that any protests had occurred or would be allowed to occur. Human rights monitors now say the announcement that such pens would be set up was aimed at defusing foreign criticism of China rather than providing citizens with an outlet to voice discontent during the games.

China is known to have denied permits to a few Chinese who sought to protest in the parks, and other dissidents have been forcefully removed from Beijing, essentially stifling any visible domestic dissent during the Olympic Games.

Some foreign activists, including religious pro-lifers and Tibetan activists, have gotten their voices heard. But China has skillfully developed a quiet "catch and deport" policy that has effectively neutralized foreign activists from disrupting events and making embarrassing international headlines.

Liu Shaowu, director of security for the Olympic Games, announced July 23 that protests could occur at Beijing's Temple of the Sun park in the southeastern embassy district, at the Purple Bamboo park in the northwest or at the World Park in the far southwest "as long as applications were made and approved in advance."

The three parks are all several miles — or further — from Olympic venues.

On Monday, security personnel in civilian dress milled about the entrances to each park and approached as a visitor conducted interviews with passersby, apparently to eavesdrop.

"There have been no protests here," said Zong Shi, a volunteer at a temporary Olympics booth outside the entrance to the Beijing World Park, in the Fengtai district in southwest Beijing.

The theme park would be an unusual site for a protest anyway. Entry costs the equivalent of $9.50, and once inside one is surrounded by replicas of foreign landmarks like the White House, the Eiffel Tower and Stonehenge. A live elephant greets all visitors.

At the Purple Bamboo Park, Li Wei, a salesman for a high-tech company who strolled with his family through the bamboo groves, echoed what is a common government line about the lack of demonstrations.

"We Chinese people love the Olympics and support the Olympics, and that's why there are no protesters," Li said.

In fact, though, some Chinese have sought to protest but discovered that even applying for a permit can be fraught with risk.

Zhang Wei, a Beijing housing activist was arrested last week after applying for a permit so that angry residents relocated from their homes in the Qianmen district of Beijing could go to one of the "protest pens" in the parks, family members said.

Other housing activists from Suzhou, angry about property redevelopment in that eastern Chinese city, were also denied permission in Beijing to protest in one of the parks.

Beijing police would not provide any information over the telephone about how many protests applications have been received and turned down. A press officer for the city requested a fax before any such information would be provided, then did not reply to the fax.

Citizens disgruntled over corruption, land disputes or other grievances with the state routinely seek out foreign journalists and diplomats to present their complaints, saying they find no recourse to their problems. Government officials seek to keep a lid on such discontent, saying they are striving to build an image of a "harmonious society."

The International Federation of Journalists, a worldwide guild, issued a statement Monday calling on Chinese authorities to "stop their snooping" on journalists, citing several cases of plainclothes security personnel snapping photos and taking video of journalists in what it called "a form of intimidation that contravenes press freedom."

Some 26,000 foreign journalists are accredited to work during the Olympics in China.

"Once again, we call on the Chinese authorities to make good on their promise that journalists can work without intimidation," said Aidan White, general secretary of the Brussels-based federation.

McClatchy special correspondent Hua Li contributed.