Empty protest zones belie hope for greater tolerance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 August, 2008, 12:00am

The setting up of protest zones in three Beijing parks was a small but welcome first step towards allowing demonstrators the freedom to express their views publicly during the Olympics. However, these areas, in Ritan Park, Purple Bamboo Park and Beijing World Park have remained empty since the Games began. This is disappointing, since it undermines the purpose of the zones.

The three parks were designated as protest zones two weeks before the Olympics began, in a belated move to meet concerns about mainland authorities' lack of tolerance for public dissent. As we report today, more than a week after the Games began the zones remain quiet retreats for the elderly and for young families rather than havens for freedom of speech. There has been no shortage of would-be protesters from home and abroad wanting to use the zones, including mainlanders who otherwise are restricted to the unrewarding process of filing petitions with the authorities against alleged injustices. But they have been frustrated or intimidated by a wall of red tape, official obstruction and indifference.

Visa refusals, deportations and the detention of protesters have also limited opportunities for people to express their grievances. Some restrictions are necessary in order to ensure that the Games proceed safely and without disruption. But the country's constitution guarantees the right to protest, and so long as this is done peacefully it should be possible.

Restricting protesters to designated zones is not ideal, but it is a method which has been employed around the world during international events to provide an orderly outlet for grievances. The approach was adopted for the Athens and Sydney Olympics, for example. But the zones are only meaningful if regulations facilitate rather than obstruct those who wish to protest in the zones. With safeguards in place, Beijing had nothing to fear from relaxing its ban on peaceful protests. Its reluctance to pull down the barriers now dims hopes for greater tolerance after the Olympics. It is not too late for a change of heart before the protest zones come to be seen as a public relations exercise that backfired.