Olympics protesters herded into pens

Mary-Anne Toy in Beijing
July 24, 2008

BEIJING will provide protest pens at three suburban parks where foreigners and Chinese citizens who are brave enough to apply for permission will be allowed to hold public demonstrations during the Olympics.

However, spontaneous protests are likely to be treated as illegal disturbances and promptly stifled by the 110,000-strong Olympic security police, backed by more than 1 million residents who have been mobilised to detect potential threats and 300,000 security cameras throughout the city.

At a security briefing yesterday, Olympic security chief Liu Shaowu confirmed that, in an unprecedented move for China, protest pens would be set up.

He also revealed that many security workers would be disguised as Olympic volunteers or in plain clothes to ensure a "joyful and harmonious atmosphere". He denied reports that police had ordered bar owners to not serve black people and said it was "impossible for such a thing to happen in China".

Mr Liu said there was a threat of international terrorism and that protests inside Olympic areas would not be allowed, in line with section 51 of the International Olympic Charter.

Asked by the Herald whether spontaneous protests could be allowed outside of Olympic venues, in public places such as Wanfujing - Beijing's central shopping strip - for example, Mr Liu said only people who had received permission from the city's police would be allowed to protest.

Mr Liu said the protest parks were "close to the Olympics proper and to venues". All three parks, however, are about 12 kilometres away from the main Olympic Green, where the Bird's Nest national stadium, the Water Cube aquatic centre, the athlete's village and media centres are located

Also, it remains unclear whether the media will be able to cover the legal protests - at least two of the parks ban commercial photography or filming.

A Beijing-based analyst, Russell Leigh Moses, said officials were serious about allowing strictly controlled protests but the various security agencies were still divided.

"Some departments are concerned with security, and others with presenting China as more open," he said.

Dr Moses believed there was also the possibility that Chinese citizens, if China were portrayed negatively overseas, would hold counter-protests. "I think these sorts of outbreaks of patriotism worry some Chinese officials even more than the foreign variety," he said.

Australia's Olympic chief, John Coates, welcomed the protest parks as a "great initative".

Mr Coates said he had personally urged the Beijing organisers and the Chinese ambassador in Australia to provide such protest zones, as Sydney did for the 2000 Games. Groups had to apply for permission to demonstrate at designated areas in Sydney. Athens had similar arrangements in 2004.