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Few, if any, China rallies OK'd during Olympics

Nearly two weeks after officials said the protest zones would be set up and days before the Aug. 8 opening of the games, it isn't clear if any applications have been accepted.
/ Source: Associated Press Sports

When China announced it would allow public protests in designated areas during the Olympics, Zhang Wei saw a chance to draw attention to the loss of her home after years of fruitless wrangling with local officials.

She headed to a police station in Beijing's Haidian district to apply for permission, armed with a copy of the newspaper that carried a report of the government's decision. But an officer denied her request.

Nearly two weeks after officials said the protest zones would be set up and days before the Aug. 8 opening of the games, it isn't clear if any applications have been accepted.

"A man with glasses at the application office read through my application file and said they did not approve. 'It's only reported in newspapers. Do you think it's really going to happen?' he asked,'' Zhang said.

Police refused to comment on Zhang's application. The forced relocation of Beijing residents is a hot-button issue for the government. On Monday, some 20 people angry about their evictions from Qianmen - Zhang was not among them - demonstrated near Tiananmen Square. The protesters were dragged away by neighborhood officials as police watched.

A spokesman for the Beijing police department would not say how many people have applied for permission to protest in the three specially designated protest zones.

But Zhang's experience, and that of several others, shows how wary Chinese leaders remain of public dissent, especially during an Olympics they hope will showcase China as a friendly, modern power. Zhang said the day she went to apply, at least 20 other applications were lodged, and none were accepted.

A seeming turnaround
The government's decision to allow protests in three public parks far from the Olympic venues marked a seeming turnaround from original plans to squelch any demonstration with massive security.

Police occasionally permit protests, but only on a limited scale and ones that are not threatening to the ruling Communist Party. Last month a group demonstrated outside Japan's embassy amid a flare-up in nationalist sentiment over rival claims to a disputed island chain.

But Tibetan groups, for instance, say that the idea that they would get permission to protest is inconceivable.

"It is well known that anyone who protests or even disagrees with official Chinese policy is subject to intimidation, imprisonment, and torture,'' Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, said in a statement. "So the idea that a Tibetan could even safely apply for a permit to protest during the Beijing Olympics is a sad joke.''

Beijing suspects many Tibetan protesters of seeking independence for the Himalayan region. In March, protests of Chinese rule sparked a massive crackdown in which the government said 22 people were killed, though overseas Tibet supporters say many times that number died.

Foreign activists from Students for a Free Tibet who last year unfurled a free Tibet banner at the Great Wall of China were detained by authorities and deported.

‘You never get official approval’
Such heavy-handed responses have dragged Beijing's attitude toward protest and dissent - and its larger human rights record - into the limelight in the run-up to the games. The government apparently agreed to allow sanctioned protests in hopes of blunting criticism.

Liu Shaowu, security chief for the Beijing Organizing Committee, said applications to hold demonstrations must be filed five days in advance and would receive a response at least 48 hours before the requested rally time. The protests must not harm "national, social and collective interests,'' he said in comments posted on organizing committee's Web site.

An officer with the Chaoyang district police, where one of the protest parks is located, said applications must include the names, occupations and home addresses of the people leading the demonstration, the number of people involved, the purpose, the slogans to be used, as well as the number of any speakers. The officer refused to give his name saying he was not authorized to speak to the media.

"The procedures are not hard to go through in themselves. What is difficult is you never get official approval,'' said Li Nan, an organizer with the China Federation of Defending Diaoyutai Islands - a citizens' group that advocates Chinese claims to islands Japan controls.

"What often happens is that you go and apply to hold a protest, then if they don't tell you not to do that, you assume you can go and do it. But you have to make sure you don't violate any of the rules like not going to extremes,'' said Li.

But in the spotlight of the games, several groups have simply been turned away.

Zhang Likun, a member of the Diaoyutai group, said police recently told the organization they shouldn't hold a protest in Ritan Park, the most central of the three zones, though they often demonstrate against Japan's claims to the islands.

"We were told not to hold any protest during the games,'' Zhang said. "Because everything needs to be on the cautious side.''

Zhang Wei, however, had hoped to use that spotlight to push for more compensation for her eviction from her home in August 2006.

She used to live in a traditional courtyard house in Beijing's historic district of Qianmen but was forced to move two years ago to make way for an urban renewal project. At the time, she refused compensation for her home. Now she must return to going to the district government's offices every Monday, as she has done for the past two years, to plead her case.