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China crackdown fails to stop foreign activists

Nation's intense efforts to block protests that would mar Olympic Games are challenged by those bent on diverting attention to a wide variety of issues.
Image: Tibet activists unfurl banners in Beijing, China
A Free Tibet activist descends from a light post close to Beijing's National Stadium on Wednesday.EPA
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

China's intense efforts to block any protest that would mar the Olympic Games were challenged Wednesday by foreign activists equally bent on diverting attention to issues as varied as Tibetan independence, the crisis in Darfur and religious freedom.

Two American and two British protesters slipped through a smothering Olympic security net, climbed a pair of lampposts and unfurled banners demanding freedom for Tibet near the new stadium where the Beijing Games are to open Friday night. In Tiananmen Square, three American Christian activists spoke out against China's rights record and protested its population control policies.

In Bangkok, President Bush planned to speak directly to the issue of human rights in China on Thursday night, according to a draft copy of a speech he was to deliver hours before heading to the Chinese capital for the opening ceremony. "America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists," the draft read.

Meanwhile, a day after Beijing revoked a visa for Darfur activist and former Olympian Joey Cheek, the U.S. Olympic team selected a Sudanese refugee to be the American delegation's flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies, a move that will further highlight China's role in the war-scarred region.

The developments Wednesday, particularly the protests by foreigners, highlighted the difficulties facing China's Communist Party rulers as they try to show television viewers in China and the world a prosperous, harmonious country during the celebrations, even at the cost of heavy-handed security restrictions.

Cowed into silence
The many Chinese who might be tempted to protest during the Games -- including human rights advocates, pro-democracy agitators or farmers disgruntled over land confiscations -- have been largely cowed into silence by a security crackdown that has left thousands in detention, under house arrest or banned from travel to Beijing. But foreigners, under consular protection and running much less risk of imprisonment, have pushed forward with plans to take advantage of China's moment in the sun despite a tightening of visa requirements.

"Days before the Olympic Games begin, and as all eyes turn to China, we appeal to the world to remember that millions of Tibetans are crying out for human rights and freedom," Tenzin Dorjee, deputy director of Students for a Free Tibet, said in a statement.

Many activists have tried and failed to get into China for the Games.

Actress Mia Farrow, a prominent Darfur activist, announced that she would hold a news conference on the region on Thursday from Chad, which neighbors Sudan in Central Africa, because she was denied a visa to China, according to the advocacy group Dream for Darfur. Yang Jianli, a prominent Chinese dissident and senior fellow at Harvard, tried to travel to the mainland but was detained Wednesday while in Hong Kong.

Attempts by activists from the Indian-based Tibetan Youth Congress to march into China to protest the Olympics were on Sunday thwarted for a third time when 56 Tibetan exiles were detained 15 miles from the border. Hundreds of Tibet activists, meanwhile, are staging their own protests in India, where 100,000 Tibetans live and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, leads a government in exile.

Six Tibetans began a hunger strike in New Delhi on July 28, saying they wanted China to release Tibetan political prisoners and improve human rights conditions, and for nations to withdraw their athletes from the Olympic Games. Late Tuesday, after the condition of one of the fasters deteriorated, the police and government doctors forcibly carried the hunger strikers in their bedsheets to a hospital. A fresh batch of six Tibetans showed up at the site Wednesday morning to begin another round of a hunger strike.

"We know that hunger strike is not allowed by Buddhism, and we do not have the Dalai Lama's blessings," said Nawang Tenzin, a maroon-robed monk sitting on the street. "But Buddhism will be finished if we don't get our nation. This method is better than fighting with bullets and bombs."

Threat to take babies
To prevent such protests inside their own borders, Chinese authorities recently threatened to take away one female activist's two babies as she tried to enter the country. A Tibetan woman surnamed Kemo was returning to China on July 18 after nearly two years in the United States, where she had had two children. She was stopped by a passport control officer, escorted to an interrogation room and asked whether she had ever participated in political protests.

"Yes, but a long time ago," Kemo said she replied, speaking on the condition that her first name not be used. Officers then showed her computer printouts of photos of her participating at various U.S. protests. "You are lying to us," an officer told her.

Officers pried the children away from her, slapping her and one of her children when he clutched her purse strap to prevent her from being taken away, she said.

The officer then gave her a choice: accept deportation and buy plane tickets to take her children back to the United States or go to jail and lose her children. After she bought the tickets, police escorted her to the next flight to New York and returned her children on the jetway to the airplane.

On Wednesday, in another quiet but short-lived protest, Tibetan activists invited a group of foreign correspondents to a small Beijing hotel to view a movie promoting Tibetan independence. An attempt to show the movie a second time was interrupted by authorities, forcing cancellations of other showings that had been planned through the day, organizers said.

Foreigners' evade security
At Tiananmen Square, pre-screened groups with passes were allowed entry to see the Olympic torch carried around at the beginning of a three-day parade through the city that ends Friday with a ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame. Yao Ming, the basketball star, carried the torch out of the Forbidden City, passing under a portrait of Mao Zedong and out onto the vast Tiananmen esplanade. A Central Chinese Television helicopter hovered overhead and People's Armed Police formed a security cordon between spectators and the torchbearers.

According to Students for a Free Tibet, four protesters sneaked into an intersection near the stadium at dawn. Two climbed up a pair of lampposts and unfurled their banners about 6 a.m. One was about 60 feet above the street, the other about 20 feet above the street, when they opened up their protest signs, the group said.

Kate Woznow, the group's campaigns director, said one banner stated "One World, One Dream: Free Tibet" in English. The other stated "Tibet Will Be Free" in English and "Free Tibet" in Chinese, she said in a telephone interview.

The official New China News Agency, in a short dispatch on the incident, said the banners hung for 12 minutes before police arrived and hustled the protesters away "for investigation." Quoting police, it said all four were British citizens, three men and a woman who entered China on tourist visas.

Students for a Free Tibet, however, identified the two who climbed up the lampposts as Iain Thom, a 24-year-old Briton from Edinburgh, Scotland, and Phill Bartell, a 34-year-old U.S. citizen who lives in Boulder, Colo. Lucy Marion, a 23-year-old Briton from Cambridge, England, and Tiran Mink, 32, a U.S. citizen from Portland, Ore., "provided support" on the ground and watched out for police, Woznow said.

The banners were visible for nearly an hour before police intervened and took the four away, the Tibet activist group said. "Their current whereabouts are unknown," it added in a statement.

The four were led away by police but not arrested, according to Chinese authorities. In the past, foreigners involved in such protests have been held for a short while and then deported under Chinese regulations that make protests illegal except with prior authorization from police.

Correspondents Jill Drew in Beijing, Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi, Michael Abramowitz in Bangkok and Nora Boustany in Washington contributed to this report.