China sets up special 'protest zones' for rallies during Olympics

Special zones will be set up for protesters to hold rallies during the Beijing Olympics next month, but Chinese officials are giving few details of what protests might be allowed and how access will be controlled.

Officials sidestep questions about access to demonstration areas

China’s government will set up specially designated zones for protesters during next month's Beijing Olympics, but demonstrators will have to apply for special permission to hold rallies, a security official  in the Chinese capital said Wednesday.

Traditionally, the authorities in China clamp down hard on organized protests, especially on the sensitive issues of Tibetan independence, the Falun Gong religious movement or the rights of Uighurs and other minority groups in China.

Security in Beijing has been tightened considerably in the months leading up the Olympics.

Vehicle checkpoints ring the city. Visa rules have been tightened to keep out foreign activists. Police have swept Beijing neighborhoods to remove Chinese anti-corruption campaigners. 

But Liu Shaowu, director for security for the Olympic organizing committee, said at a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday that areas in three parks near far-flung sporting venues have been set aside for use by demonstrators.

The remarks were the first public confirmation that the country’s communist authorities may tolerate some protests when the world’s attention is focused on China. Beijing is hoping a flawlessly organized Olympics will boost the government’s popularity at home and abroad.

"This will allow people to protest without disrupting the Olympics," said Ni Jianping, director of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies, who lobbied Chinese leaders to set up the designated demonstration areas.

Access rules uncertain

At the same time, it was not clear how the authorities intended to allow access to the areas by either protesters or journalists wanting to cover them.

Beijing has already refused visa requests for known foreign activists, notably pro-Tibet campaigners.

Liu said police were trying to strike a balance between the need for safety and the desire for festiveness.

"We truly do want to preserve the festive and joyful atmosphere of the Olympic venues," Liu said. "At the same time we want to reduce the impact security has on daily life."

He said threats from terrorism were real, given the international climate, and that the hundreds of thousands of visitors expected in Beijing presented a ripe opportunity for infiltration.

Similar areas in Athens, Salt Lake City: official

Liu noted that the Greek government set up similar areas for the 2004 Athens games, as did U.S. Olympic organizers at the Salt Lake City winter games in 2002.

Liu also reiterated that Chinese regulations require that all protesters apply and receive permission in advance, though he didn't answer questions about whether that included the special zones.

Human rights campaigners were skeptical of the Chinese move.

"Designating unilaterally 'protest zones' for demonstrators does not equate to respecting the right to demonstrate because in this situation control comes first and the right second," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

With files from the Associated Press