In a nod to criticism that it is stifling free speech during the Olympics, China intends to designate space in three public parks as “protest zones” for people to vent their grievances, officials said Wednesday.
Protesters will have to obtain permission from the Ministry of Public Security in advance, giving the names of organizers, the topic and the number of participants.
Still, the protest zones are a break from the Chinese government’s zero tolerance of dissent.
“This is a practical step to bring China closer to international standards,” said Ni Jianping, deputy director of the Shanghai Institute for American Studies, who advised the Beijing Olympic committee on the concept. He said the idea also has been approved by the International Olympic Committee’s chief coordinator, Hein Verbruggen. “We are showing that Beijing is serious about human rights.”
The concept of a “protest zone” or “free speech zone” has been around since the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, which was disrupted by demonstrations. The special zones have since been used at many international gatherings, including the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, as well as at the Democratic and Republican party conventions.
The locations of the protest zones -- Ritan Park, World Park and Purple Bamboo Park -- are far enough from the main Olympic venues that spectators would be unlikely to see them. World Park has also been designated as a protest location for petitioners, ordinary citizens following a Chinese tradition who come to the capital to present personal grievances, according to Ni.
The Olympics are to open in little more than two weeks and the news of the protest zones came out Wednesday when Olympics security director Liu Shaowu disclosed the plan in response to a question at a news conference. He could not provide information about the application procedures for a demonstration permit.
“Chinese law guarantees the legal rights of demonstration and assembly,” Liu said at the news conference. “To ensure smooth traffic flow, a beautiful environment and a sense of order near the sports venues, the demonstrations have to take place in parks.”
Human rights advocates ridiculed the proposal as a “fig leaf” and a “trap” to prevent the airing of substantial political grievances.
“Try demonstrating about Tibet, Taiwan, Tianamen Square, and see what happens,” said Sharon Hom, the New York-based executive director of Human Rights in China.
Many writers and bloggers critical of the Olympics have been placed under house arrest or directed to leave Beijing for the duration of the Games.
Susan Brownell, a University of Missouri professor on a Fulbright scholarship to study the Games and who worked on the proposal for protest zones, said that the Chinese government didn’t focus on the issue until this spring, when Tibet activists tried to disrupt the torch relay in London, Paris and San Francisco.
“They were looking for new ideas. They wanted to show that China can do things differently and that there is space for protest in China,” Brownell said.
“We are hoping that it will serve as an experiment that will allow them to go forward.”