Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

"Protest Zones" -- Malcontents Need Not Apply

August 19, 2008

By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
August 17, 2008

BEIJING -- To put a smiley face on its image during the Olympics, the
Chinese government set aside three "protest zones" in Beijing.
Officials explained that so long as protesters obtained approval in
advance, demonstrations would be allowed.

So I decided to test the system.

Following government instructions, I showed up at an office of the
Beijing Public Security Bureau, found Window 12 and declared to the
officer, "I'm here to apply to hold a protest."

What I didn't realize is that Public Security has arrested at least a
half-dozen people who have shown up to apply for protest permits.
Public Security is pretty shrewd. In the old days it had to go out
and catch protesters in the act. Now it saves itself the bother:
would-be protesters show up at Public Security offices to apply for
permits and are promptly detained. That's cost-effective law
enforcement for you.

Fortunately, the official at Window 12 didn't peg me as a
counterrevolutionary. He looked at me worriedly and asked for my
passport and other ID papers. Discovering that I was a journalist, he
asked hopefully, "Wouldn't you rather conduct an interview about

"No. I want to apply to hold one."

His brow furrowed. "What do you want to protest?"

"I want to demonstrate in favor of preserving Beijing's historic
architecture." It was the least controversial, most insipid topic I
could concoct.

"Do you think the government is not doing a good job at this?" he
asked sternly.

"There may be room for improvement," I said delicately.

The official frowned and summoned two senior colleagues who, after a
series of frantic phone calls, led me into the heart of the police
building. I was accompanied by a Times videographer, and he and a
police videographer busily videoed each other. Then the police
explained that under the rules they could video us but we couldn't video them.

The Public Security Bureau (a fancy name for a police station) gleams
like much of the rest of Beijing. It is a lovely, spacious building,
and the waiting room we were taken to was beautifully furnished; no
folding metal chairs here. It's a fine metaphor for China's legal
system: The hardware is impeccable, but the software is primitive.

After an hour of waiting, interrupted by periodic frowning
examinations of our press credentials, we were ushered into an
elegant conference room. I was solemnly directed to a chair marked "applicant."

Three police officers sat across from me, and the police videographer
continued to film us from every angle. The officers were all cordial
and professional, although one seemed to be daydreaming about pulling
out my fingernails.

Then they spent nearly an hour going over the myriad rules for
demonstrations. These were detailed and complex, and, most daunting,
I would have to submit a list of every single person attending my
demonstration. The list had to include names and identity document numbers.

In addition, any Chinese on a name list would have to go first to the
Public Security Bureau in person to be interviewed (arrested?).

"If I go through all this, then will my application at least be
granted?" I asked.

"How can we tell?" a policeman responded. "That would prejudge the process."

"Well, has any application ever been granted?" I asked.

"We can't answer that, for that matter has no connection to this case."

The policemen did say that if they approved, they would give me a
"Demonstration Permission Document." Without that, my demonstration
would be illegal.

I surrendered. The rules were so monstrously bureaucratic that I
couldn't even apply for a demonstration. My Olympic dreams were
dashed. The police asked me to sign their note-taker's account of the
meeting, and we politely said our goodbyes.

Yet even though the process is a charade, it still represents
progress in China, in that the law implicitly acknowledges the
legitimacy of protest. Moreover, a trickle of Chinese have applied to
hold protests, even though they know that they are more likely to end
up in jail than in a "protest zone." Fear of the government is ebbing.

My hunch is that in the coming months, perhaps after the Olympics, we
will see some approvals granted. China is changing: it is no
democracy, but it's also no longer a totalitarian state.

China today reminds me of Taiwan in the mid-1980s as a rising middle
class demanded more freedom. Almost every country around China, from
Mongolia to Indonesia, Thailand to South Korea, has become more open
and less repressive — not because of the government's kindness but
because of the people's insistence.

I feel that same process happening here, albeit agonizingly slowly.
Someday China's software will catch up with its hardware.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog,
and join me on Facebook at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank