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BEIJING 2008: PROTEST-FREE ZONES; SHARING NATIONAL
PRIDE

No protests, even in designated parks

The three zones where demonstrators were to be allowed are quiet.

August 09, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The World Park offers so many globe-trotting activities you might almost forget you are in China.

You can climb a 100-foot-high replica of the Eiffel Tower, walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and get your picture taken in front of the New York City skyline -- complete with the World Trade Center.

But one thing you apparently cannot do is protest, despite assurances from the Chinese government to the contrary -- a reminder that this still is China and a China unchanged.

The Beijing Olympic organizing committee announced July 23 that protesters would be permitted to express themselves in three city parks, including World Park. The theme park, on the southwestern outskirts of Beijing, was also designated for petitioners with personal grievances.

But those promises appear to have evaporated without explanation. On Friday, the opening day of the Summer Olympics, there was no sign at the parks of protest areas or of protesters.

"Protesters? Never heard anything about that," said a woman standing in front of the pyramids with a camel -- $1.50 to take a photo, $4.50 for a tour of the pyramids. "Wouldn't you like a ride?"

"There's nothing to worry about. The park is completely safe," added Kou Xin, a vendor selling soft drinks under the Eiffel Tower.

In fact, there appeared to be more security personnel than visitors at the park. Members of the People's Armed Police, a paramilitary unit sporting distinctive red epaulets, lounged in a recreation area. Volunteers wearing red and yellow armbands sat along the edges of the lawns closely surveying passersby. A man with a camera photographed visitors as they arrived. A foreign visitor stepping into a shop to purchase some Olympic T-shirts was followed by half a dozen people in plainclothes who appeared to be security.

Last month's announcement that space inside the parks was being designated for protest zones was an extraordinary step for a government that has shown little tolerance of criticism, and it raised hope that the Olympic Games might usher in a more open China.

The regulations required that potential protesters give five days' notice and submit a form listing the names and addresses of participants and the subject and contents of any banners that would be used.

But it is unclear whether any applications for protests have been accepted. The China Federation of Defending Diaoyutai Islands, which backs China's claim to islands held by Japan, has said it was denied permission. Zhang Wei, a housing activist protesting the demolition of traditional homes in downtown Beijing, was detained Wednesday, shortly after applying for a permit.

"It is a trap. If anybody tried to protest at these parks, they will be arrested," said Zhang Shihe, a blogger and activist in Beijing. "They were just doing this gesture for foreigners."

Like World Park, the two other parks designated as protest zones, Purple Bamboo Park and Ritan Park, have had no protests and do not appear to have set up any zones for them.

"I really don't know what has happened," said Ni Jian- ping, deputy director of the Shanghai Institute for American Studies. Ni was one of several scholars who had urged the Beijing Olympics committee to set up protest zones in hope it would be a first step toward getting the Chinese government to tolerate criticism. "Maybe they felt that with the opening ceremony happening, it was not an appropriate time to protest."

Clearly fearful of mass gatherings, the Chinese government also reduced the number of sites where it set up large-screen televisions in each district of the capital for people to watch the opening ceremony Friday night in public. Tiananmen Square was closed entirely to prevent it from becoming a magnet for demonstrators.

The group Students for a Free Tibet said that three American activists were picked up by police on their way to the opening ceremony, where they had planned to unfurl Tibetan flags.

--

barbara.demick@latimes.com

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