On August 8, China will fling open its doors to the world’s finest athletes and welcome, for the first time, a global Olympic audience. Yet, while the world’s attention is distracted by the glint of gold medals in Beijing, Chinese officials are doing whatever it takes to ensure that only the high polish of the Olympic spectacle makes it out through tightly controlled (i.e. censored) television, print, and online media.
In light of the recent protests in Tibet, a catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan Province, bus bombings in Kunming and Shanghai, and terrorist attacks in Xinjiang Province, Chinese officials are determined to build a façade of control—and cohesive national pride—lest unsightly and embarrassing political demonstrations be broadcast around the world. From banning select foreign entertainers to jailing Beijing dissidents, liberties are systematically being curtailed in what was once hoped to be China’s great coming out party.
To their credit, in expectation of public protests of one kind or another, officials have set aside three city parks in Beijing where demonstrators can air their grievances—a highly unusual gesture from the authoritarian government. There is a catch, of course. “The police will safeguard the right to demonstrate as long as protesters have obtained prior approval and are in accordance with the law,” said Liu Shaowu, director of Olympics security, during a news conference.
According to the law, citizens (it is unclear how internationals figure into this mix) must apply for a permit, in person, five days in advance of the scheduled protest. The application requires detailed information, including the topic of dissent, slogans to be used, and the expected number of demonstrators. Moreover, protests that are disruptive of “national unity,” “social stability,” security, or that advocate for ethnic minority separatism (read: Tibet, Xinjiang) will not be approved.
Despite the obstacles, could we see some action in the parks? Quoted in the New York Times, human rights lawyer and advocate Xu Zhiyong said, “As a first step toward opening up space for dissent, it is appropriate…. There should be many people who are willing to use this space, petitioners and people who have experienced injustice.” It will take a clever protest application, however, or outright subversive action, to hold a demonstration that does not violate the government’s tightly scripted rules. Protesting on issues such as pollution, political prisoners, religious freedom (Falun Gong), Tibet, Xingjian, shoddy construction of schools in Sichuan’s earthquake zone, democracy, freedom of speech in general, corruption, land rights, and other issues will, in all likelihood, be denied their moment in Beijing.