Beijing plans to establish protest sites for Olympics

By Barbara Demick

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, disclosing the names of organizers, the topic and the number of participants.

"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 Seattle's 1999 World Trade Organization meeting, which was disrupted by demonstrations. The special zones since have been used at many international gatherings, including the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens, as well as at the Democratic and Republican conventions.

The protest zones are set for three locations far enough from the main Olympic venues that spectators would be unlikely to see them. One of the sites, World Park, also has 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 Aug. 8, and 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 procedures to apply for a demonstration permit.

"Chinese law guarantees the legal rights of demonstration and assembly," Liu said.

Human-rights advocates ridiculed the proposal as a "trap" to prevent the airing of substantial political grievances.

"Try demonstrating about Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and see what happens," said Sharon Hom, the New York-based executive director of Human Rights in China.

Copyright © 2008 Chicago Tribune

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