19 Aug 2008

Beijing 'protest parks' go unused

9:41 pm on 19 August 2008

The loudest songs to trouble official ears in Beijing's Olympic "protest parks" are those of sparrows. The only shouts those of amateur badminton players.

China said in July that it had set up three demonstration zones to counter criticism it is crushing human rights to prevent disruptions to the meticulously planned Olympics.

The only condition was that would-be protesters had to a apply for a protest permit five days in advance.

But as the end of the Games approaches, not a single permit has been issued and park managers have not even made plans for handling demonstrators because they do not expect any.

At least one would-be protester was even arrested after applying for a protest permit, a human rights group said.

Seventy-seven applications have been lodged since 1 August to hold what would be the first legal, independent protests in tightly controlled China for decades, state media said on Monday.

None was approved. Most applicants wanted to raise labour, medical and welfare complaints - chronic problems in China.

That applicants managed to apply at all was impressive. A visit to two police stations during the Olympics to try to secure one of the forms was met with blank stares and a range of excuses.

"Actually, someone did come here to apply to protest, with a form, but I don't know where he got it from," said one officer, peering through a locked station gate. "We don't have any forms here - we can't give any to foreigners."

The most visible protesters at the Games have been by a group opposed to China's rule in Tibet. Its members hung a Tibetan flag on the Olympic Green and unfurled a banner near the new state television headquarters, ignoring the protest parks altogether.

"We didn't even consider applying for a second because for us it is clear that the protest zones are just part of China's cynical public relations tactic," said Lhadon Tethong of Students for a Free Tibet.

One foreign rights group has warned that the protest parks are a trap for dissidents.

"The protest application process clearly isn't about giving people greater freedom of expression, but making it easier for the police to suppress it," said Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch.

The group said legal activist Ji Sizun, from southern Fujian province, was taken into custody when he went to a police station to check whether there had been any progress on his application for a protest permit to denounce corruption and demand greater political participation for ordinary Chinese.