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Do splashy protests pay dividends?

Some activists say wacky antics will lead to more openness in China. Others urge less confrontational tactics.

August 14, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The eight foreigners detained Wednesday near the Olympic Village after unfurling a "Free Tibet" banner followed pole sitters, pirate radio jocks and slogan-shouting Christian activists in finding holes through China's security operation to challenge its human rights policies.

The question is whether their protests will make any difference.

In the short term, such stunts do little more than gain publicity for their causes. Given the government's skill at controlling information, their message is unlikely to reach many Chinese citizens.

And though some human rights activists urge using quieter means to press for change, China is more sensitive to foreign pressure than it acknowledges. Some say wacky antics can heighten global attention that eventually could lead to greater openness.

Students for a Free Tibet, which organized Wednesday's event at which the activists chained themselves to bicycles, started planning a series of Olympics protests months ago, said Lhadon Tethong, the New York-based group's executive director. A British journalist also was briefly detained, reportedly because police mistook him for a protester. China has been particularly sensitive about Tibet protests since riots erupted across the Tibetan plateau in March.

Tethong said her group believes that engaging in discussions with China doesn't work. "The idea that China is going to naturally move to a more open society absolutely isn't true," she said.

Two days before the opening ceremony last week, the group carried out a complex action timed for maximum impact. Two Britons and two Americans slipped into China in early August on tourist visas, careful they weren't on any Chinese watch list.

The four spent a few days casing the area around Beijing's National Stadium. Then at 5:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, two members quickly assembled climbing equipment and ascended halfway up 120-foot electricity pylons on a pair of slings.

Pro-Tibet activist Phil Bartell, a tattoo artist from Boulder, Colo., said he practiced climbing for months. Once aloft, he and fellow activist Iain Thom unfurled "Free Tibet" banners as two female colleagues ran interference below.

When police arrived, they seemed unsure what to do, Bartell said. The activists blogged and conducted interviews aloft on cellphones. Eventually, a cherry picker and firetruck appeared and the group surrendered. They were interrogated for eight hours, had their visas revoked and were deported.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders' bid to take over Chinese radio frequency last week was an embarrassing security lapse for the government in Beijing.

Over several weeks, the media group smuggled tiny transmitters into China, then crafted antennas from climbing equipment, said Vincent Brossel, the group's Asia head. On the morning of the opening ceremony, several activists turned on the mini transmitters simultaneously and broadcast a call for free speech. Aware police could easily track them, they only broadcast for 20 minutes before ditching the equipment and slipping out of China.

Others argue that less confrontational methods are more effective.

"We try and build up a relationship that involves an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-off slap in the face," said Joshua Rosenzweig, Hong Kong-based research manager with the Dui Hua Foundation, which works for the release of Chinese political prisoners.

But there's no easy answer, Rosenzweig said, adding that Dui Hua's website was blocked recently while those of more confrontational groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were not.

Li Datong, former editor of the influential publication Freezing Point, said foreign activists would be more effective if they helped bring about a dialogue among Chinese officials, experts and the public.

"This will take a long time, but is more useful," he said. "The government isn't stupid, but many of their actions come from fear that giving people rights will undermine its rule."

Foreigners generally face little more than deportation for demonstrating. Chinese protesters face persecution, prison or worse, which may explain why few of them have grabbed the spotlight in recent days. Many ordinary Chinese also are feeling defensive, convinced that outside protesters are trying to keep China down and spoil the Olympics.

Months ago, Beijing recognized it couldn't stop every protester among its 450,000 foreign Olympic visitors. "The world is big, and there are various birds in the forest," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters, adding that the government expected activist groups to distort the truth.

Beijing is slowly becoming more tolerant of protests, some analysts said, although they still are seen as a hostile act rather than a form of expression.

"What foreign protesters do won't have much effect," said Lin Zhe, professor at the Communist Party's Central Party School. "The government won't collapse. People are getting more used to them."

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