Beijing's protest stance should outlive Olympics

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2008, 12:00am

Protests and major international events go hand in hand. It is a fact of life that whenever the world's eyes are on a country because of whatever or whoever it is hosting, people with a grievance to air will capitalise on it to get a wider hearing. So the authorities' decision to designate three protest zones in Beijing, which is due to host the Olympics, should not have come as a surprise, except that this is taking place in a city that normally shuns any public outpouring of dissent.

Beijing should not now view its obligations as the host of the premier sporting event as having been fulfilled. This must be a first step on the road to giving mainlanders the freedoms that the Chinese constitution assures. Letting Chinese and foreigners vent their concerns publicly during the Games is essential. As long as protests are peaceful, no-one should be penalised or suffer for their actions.

To the authorities' credit, the protest zones are inside parks that are relatively near to Games venues. This is a considerable improvement on the only other time when such protests were allowed; then, for the UN women's conference in Beijing in 1995, the single park was far removed from where delegates were meeting.

However, that the rules that will apply are seemingly the same, restrictive ones already in place for all people wishing to protest in Beijing does not augur well. We hope that authorities put as few barriers as possible in the way of people being allowed to express their views. Nor should officials pick and choose who can protest.

Restricting protesters to specific places is not ideal; free speech, in theory, should be permitted at any place and time, assuming the rights and activities of others are not unduly disrupted. Some controls are necessary, though, given the possibility that passions could get out of hand and cause disruption to the Games. Ensuring that people who want to protest can do so in safety and that others will not be harmed is important.

Cynicism about Beijing's decision among some people is natural given the mainland's track record on demonstrations and its treatment of protesters. Whether the issues which people want to protest about are right or wrong is irrelevant. What matters is that the constitution says people have the right to protest and that right must be respected by the authorities.

Perhaps Beijing should learn a lesson or two from Hong Kong. Hardly a day goes by in this city without some groups taking to the street to voice their frustrations. But most protests go off without a hitch. This is because we have a well-established mechanism for the police to impose reasonable constraints on the time, place and manner of a demonstration, and protest organisers can appeal against those constraints if they are excessive. The police have the dual role of protecting the demonstrators' right to protest as well as maintaining public order. The only major local protest that went wild was when South Korean farmers demonstrated against the World Trade Organisation talks held in Hong Kong in 2005. But the tough yet restrained way in which our police handled the situation won them widespread admiration.

Beijing has taken an important step in allowing protests during the Olympics. The right should not end when the athletes and spectators go home. It should continue and be broadened, reflecting China's newfound international standing from having hosted the Olympics. That is what the central government promised when bidding for the Games, and that pledge has to be honoured.