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Olympic Protest Parks Empty as China Rejects, Arrests Picketers

By John Liu, Bloomberg
August 21, 2008

Aug. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Ritan Park in Beijing is filled with men practicing tai chi, women doing yoga and toddlers with their grandparents. Welcome to the Olympic protest park that isn't.

Ritan is one of three parks where protesters were supposed to be able to demonstrate during the Olympics as long as they received permits from the city. Yet there won't be any legal gatherings at Ritan, Beijing World or Purple Bamboo parks before the games end Aug. 24. That's because all 77 applications were withdrawn or rejected, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The lack of activity shows the government never intended to allow demonstrations, said Fu Hualing, a University of Hong Kong professor who studies human rights in China. China set aside the protest zones in July after international criticism of its human rights record. At least seven Chinese were detained after applying for permits, according to family members and human rights groups.

``The government's concern is if people get a taste of voicing their disputes and of being able to do it safely at these parks, then they might expect that to continue,'' Fu said.

Beijing police spokesman Zi Xiangdong denied allegations about the arrests.

``No one has been detained for applying to protest at the parks as far as we are aware,'' he said.

Designated protest zones have been used at international events since demonstrators disrupted World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999. Organizers of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and the 2004 Athens games tried to limit protesters to specified areas, as did the host cities of the last two Republican and Democratic conventions in the U.S.

Transparency Sought

While the International Olympic Committee was pleased Beijing decided to open the protest parks, it asked for information about how permit applications were processed, said spokeswoman Giselle Davies.

``The more transparency we have on this, the better,'' she said at a news conference before the statistics were released.

Applications had to be submitted at least five days before a planned demonstration, so Aug. 19 was the last day requests could be granted.

That doesn't mean demonstrators have been silent. Foreigners advocating Tibetan rights and religious freedom have held illegal protests near the Forbidden City, Olympic Village and the offices of state-run China Central Television.

At least 37 protesters have been deported after unapproved actions, according to activists and state-run media. Members of Students for a Free Tibet wrapped themselves in Tibetan flags and fell to the ground in a ``die-in'' on Tiananmen Square. Others hung a pro-Tibet banner on CCTV headquarters.

`Plastic Fruit'

The organization shunned the parks because they're too far from the main Olympic venues, co-founder John Hocevar said.

Beijing World Park, which features replicas of international landmarks including the Statue of Liberty and Egypt's pyramids, is about 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of downtown.

``The parks are a little like plastic fruit and we wouldn't want to take a bite of them,'' Hocevar, 40, said. ``Freedom of speech isn't something you can put in a box.''

The city government oversees the parks separately from the IOC and the Beijing Organizing Committee, known as Bocog. It required applicants to submit two forms, identification and a Chinese translation of their request at least five days before a planned protest.

Seventy-four applications were withdrawn voluntarily after police asked government agencies to mediate the disputes, Xinhua reported Aug. 18, citing police officials. Two applications were incomplete and one was rejected because demonstrators wanted to use children, which isn't allowed.

Late Night Arrest

Bocog spokesman Wang Wei said he's pleased with the results.

``For those who want to protest, as long as their problems get solved, it's good enough,'' Wang said.

The seven Chinese identified by human rights groups as having been detained include three women who wanted to protest the demolition of their homes during Beijing's facelift for the games.

Among those was Zhang Wei, 47, who was sentenced to a month in jail, according to her son, Mi Yu.

A woman in civilian clothes knocked on Zhang's door at about 11 p.m. on Aug. 6, saying a downstairs water pipe had burst and workers needed to come in to fix it. When she opened the door, two policemen pushed their way in and took her into custody, Mi said.

`Do Anything'

``They're willing to do anything to make sure the Olympics go on without a hitch,'' said Mi, 23. ``China doesn't pay attention to human rights, and it's been this way for a long time.''

Two former neighbors, 79-year-old Wu Dianyuan and 77-year-old Wang Xiuying, were sentenced to a year of ``re-education through labor'' after applying for permits five times, New York-based Human Rights in China said.

``Because the government announced the protest parks under the auspices of the Olympics, that encouraged Chinese people to take the risk and apply,'' said Phelim Kine, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. ``It led people to think there would be no reprisals.''

Even Chinese nationalists were told not to protest during the games. Zhang Likun, whose group opposes Japanese militarism, said that's a shift from previous policy.

Zhang's group won't act without official approval.

``We want to keep our necks,'' he said.

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