(New York) - The Chinese government is detaining a rights activist who applied to demonstrate legally in designated “protest zones” established for the Beijing Olympics, Human Rights Watch said today.
Ji Sizun, 58, a self-described grassroots legal activist from Fujian province, was arrested on August 11, 2008. On August 8, Ji had applied to the Deshengmenwai police station in Beijing’s Xicheng District for a permit to hold a protest in one of the city’s three designated “protest zones.” In his application, Ji stated that the protest would call for greater participation of Chinese citizens in political processes, and denounce rampant official corruption and abuses of power. He was arrested after checking back at the police station on the status of his application, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
“The Chinese government should immediately release Ji Sizun and anyone else detained by police while trying to exercise their basic rights,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The protest application process clearly isn’t about giving people greater freedom of expression, but making it easier for the police to suppress it.”
Eyewitnesses said Ji entered the police station at around 10:45 a.m. on August 11. At 12:15 p.m., he was escorted out of the building and put into a dark-colored, unmarked Buick by several men who appeared to be plainclothes policemen. Ji managed to make a short call to his family to notify them he had “problems,” but has since disappeared and remains unreachable on his mobile phone.
Public demonstrations critical of the Chinese government routinely reap swift and harsh retribution from state security forces. On July 23, however, the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) security director, Liu Shaowu, announced the creation of three protest zones in Beijing parks. He told reporters that: “People or protesters who want to express their personal opinions can go to do so” in line with “common practice in other countries.”
The process, however, is more restrictive than in many countries that use pre-designated protest areas. Applicants must give formal notification at least five days in advance, subject to police approval, which could be withdrawn at any time. Other conditions imposed by the government on the protest zones disqualify the majority of Chinese citizens from even applying for the right to use the areas. Non-Beijing residents are prohibited from protesting. Protests which might harm “national unity” and “national, social or collective interests” are also legally forbidden without any clarification of what might constitute a violation of these broad terms.
The three protest zones have so far remained empty of demonstrators.
“Nobody should confuse the lack of protesters with a lack of complaints,” said Richardson. “The detention and harassment of those who tried to take the government at its word shows the lengths to which the authorities will go to keep people from peacefully expressing their views.”
Other Chinese citizens have attempted to apply for permission and instead been harassed or detained in recent days. They include the following:
- Dr. Ge Yifei, a 48-year-old doctor from Suzhou, was detained in Beijing by Suzhou government officials who had followed her to the capital, where she was attempting to apply for permission to protest about a property dispute in her home town. The officials held Ge for several hours and then forcibly escorted her back to Suzhou.
- Police at Beijing’s Haidian district police station refused to accept an application by Zhang Wei in late July to protest over the demolition of her home for Olympics-related development. On August 12, Zhang’s son Mi Yu told the Associated Press that the district court had sentenced Zhang to a month in prison for “disturbing social order” in connection with a small protest Zhang took part in last week in Beijing’s Qianmen district with around 20 of her former neighbors.
- Representatives of parents wanting to protest in Beijing about the deaths of their children in the May 12 Sichuan earthquake were intercepted at Chengdu airport by police who “tore up their (airline) tickets,” the Washington Post reported on August 6.
- Beijing police arrested Tang Xuecheng in early August when he applied for permission to protest local corruption in his native Hunan province, The Australian newspaper reported on August 12.
Human Rights Watch said these incidents are occurring against a backdrop of intensifying official reprisals against Chinese citizens who are critical of the government in interviews with foreign journalists, and of strict police surveillance of prominent dissidents and activists in Beijing.
On August 10, underground Christian activist Hua Huiqi and his brother Hua Huilin were intercepted and detained by state security agents. The two men were cycling to Beijing’s Kuan Jie Protestant Church, where US President George W. Bush was scheduled to attend a Sunday church service. Hua Huilin was released several hours later and Hua Huiqi reportedly escaped police custody after his police captors fell asleep. Hua Huilin has told foreign journalists that Beijing Public Security Bureau officials have confirmed to him in at least two phone calls that Hua Huiqi has escaped and remains at large. According to information received by Human Rights in China, an overseas monitoring group, Hua Huiqi is currently in hiding and fears police reprisals if he returns home. Hua Huiqi is a veteran underground church activist who was first arrested in June 1994 for worshipping in churches not sanctioned by the state.
On August 7, Zeng Jinyan, the wife of a high-profile human rights activist, ceased to communicate with friends and relatives. Her husband, Hu Jia, was jailed for three and a half years on April 3 on charges of “inciting subversion against the state.” Zeng had not indicated any intention to suspend communications, but had earlier told friends that police had told her to leave Beijing ahead of the Olympic Games inauguration on August 8. Those individuals believe she has been detained by police for the duration of the games.
Human Rights Watch has compiled a list of more than 30 dissidents who are currently subject to a variety of restrictions imposed by the police, including permanent police surveillance, restrictions on communications and movements, house arrest, and in certain cases detention. The list includes lawyers such as Teng Biao, Li Fangping and Zhang Xingshui; independent intellectuals, such as Liu Xiaobo and Liu Junning; house church activists, such as Zhang Mingxuan; housing rights activists, such as Ye Guozhu; rights activists, such as Li Baiguang and Qi Zhiyong; and relatives of political prisoners, including Yuan Weijing, the wife of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, and Jia Jianying, the wife of democracy activist He Depu. All have been warned explicitly by police or state security agents against talking to foreign journalists.
“The International Olympic Committee and world leaders who honored Beijing by attending the opening ceremonies shouldn’t play deaf, dumb, and blind while people are hauled off for peaceful criticism,” said Richardson. “China is suppressing free expression, despite its Olympic pledge not to do so, and the question is whether the rest of the world silently accepts that.”