Lu Jun, a campaigner for the rights of millions of Chinese with hepatitis B, seems an unlikely threat to the Beijing Olympics.
But the popular Web site he runs was blocked in May. This month, police detained him for four hours when he returned to China from a hepatitis conference in Los Angeles. They wanted to know what he intended to do with a large red banner he was carrying that urged the government to provide support to people with hepatitis B.
“Everyone believes it’s because of the Olympics,” Lu said.
As Beijing enters the final stretch before the Aug. 8-24 Olympics, the government is trying to shut out anyone it believes might mar an event meant to showcase China as a modern nation. AIDS activists have been followed by police and beggars rounded up.
This week, petitioners in from the provinces to request the government’s intervention in local squabbles were being rounded up by police, plainclothes officers or hired thugs, who sometimes packed them into waiting vans to be sent back home.
“Now I can’t stay in hotels. I have to live on the streets because if I ever register my name the police will kick me out,” said Wang Lijun, 37, nervously clutching copies of his complaint letters amid 40 or so petitioners Wednesday.
Wang has traveled countless times to Beijing, trying to recoup unpaid pension benefits for his father, a World War II and Korean War veteran later labeled a political criminal. But in recent months, Wang said, officials in his home in barren Shaanxi province and in Beijing have twice told him not to travel to the capital because of the Olympics.
Targeting potential trouble
Beijing began tightening its already strong squeeze on political activists more than a year ago, and since then has targeted others regarded as potential troublemakers. In January, Beijing Communist Party Secretary Liu Qi, who also heads the Olympic organizing committee, was quoted in state media as saying beggars and vagrants would be cleared away for the games.
Sporadic violence involving Muslim separatists in China’s far west and a widespread uprising by Tibetans against Chinese rule in early March have heightened Beijing’s fears of disruptions.
But targeting Chinese who have never openly challenged the party underscores the lengths the government is going to make sure no protests disrupt an Olympics it hopes will boost its domestic and international legitimacy.
Lu, the hepatitis B activist, has campaigned for awareness about the disease, which infects the liver and is endemic in China, with an estimated 120 million sufferers. They often face discrimination and are sometimes denied jobs, even though it cannot be transmitted by casual contact. His Web site has become a lively forum attracting 300,000 members and often airing critical statements.
“This Web site deals with lots of discrimination and people criticize the government. These are negative things and they don’t want to lose face during the Olympics,” said Lu.
Driving activists from Beijing
The growing police pressure on some activists is driving some to leave Beijing during the games, while others have been explicitly told to do so.
“Many people are keeping their heads down,” said Sara Davis, executive director of Asia Catalyst, a New York-based group that works with activists in Asia on human rights, the environment and social justice.
Wan Yanhai, an outspoken, pioneering AIDS activist, plans to leave Beijing in August. He said authorities have put dozens of AIDS activists under house arrest or surveillance. Since late May, he has been repeatedly followed by police cars, sometimes 24 hours a day.
“This year people have already become very careful and not many people are organizing large activities,” he said.
Two Web sites for people with AIDS were temporarily shut down in March and electronic bulletin boards for sites dealing with HIV and AIDS have also been closed down, activists said.
This past week, Dechen Pemba, an ethnic Tibetan who holds a British passport, said she was detained by police as she was leaving her Beijing apartment. They searched her apartment, then took her to the airport in a convoy of three black cars and put her on a flight to London.
Pemba had a valid Chinese work visa, but she said police told her she had broken the laws of the country, though they did not specify which ones.
Pemba is a friend of many Tibetans in Beijing, including Woeser, an author who like many Tibetans goes by one name. She has written critically of China’s rule in Tibet and was recently under police surveillance.
Pemba once worked for the lobbying group International Campaign for Tibet in Berlin, but said she had stayed away from political activities in China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Thursday that Pemba was involved in separatist activities and was a part of the Tibetan Youth Congress, an exile group Beijing accuses of being a terrorist organization. Pemba denied the allegations, calling them “completely baseless and fabricated.”
“I think they’re very nervous on anything to do with Tibet,” she said.
Official worries are also making life difficult for Tibetans, Muslims from the far West and other minority ethnic groups, who are finding it difficult to get hotel rooms.
Zhang Shihe, a blogger who has written extensively about the lives of migrant workers in Beijing, said that since March, local police have told neighborhood residents’ committees near the Olympic venues not to provide accommodation to people from Tibet, Inner Mongolia and the Central Asian border province of Xinjiang.
“The whole thing shows that the government is very immature,” he said. “It is not people-oriented, and it’s harming the public.”