Protesters bypass China's official protest zones

BEIJING Wed Aug 6, 2008 8:32am EDT

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China last month designated three secluded parks in Beijing as official demonstration zones for the Olympics, but protesters on Wednesday ignored that policy and used major venues to get their message out to the world.

Four "Free Tibet" protesters -- two Britons and two Americans -- staged a demonstration near the iconic Bird's Nest Stadium, site of Friday's opening ceremony. Three U.S. activists used Beijing's Tiananmen Square to denounce abortions.

However, a tour of the official protest parks on the steamy morning that the Olympic torch procession reached the Chinese capital showed no sign yet that anyone had jumped through the significant hoops required to stage a protest.

The lush green parks bustled with Chinese people doing calisthenics, fishermen catching carp and couples kissing, but there were only watchful guards where protests will be permitted -- in theory.

Accused of stifling dissent ahead of the Games, China last month said it would allow the three parks to be used for demonstrations. But protesters must apply for permits five days in advance and not harm China's broadly yet vaguely defined "national interests".

A reporter visiting two of the designated parks, the 500-year-old Temple of the Sun and the older Purple Bamboo Park, found soothing landscapes, ornate pavilions, singing insects and wary minders -- but no sign of protest.

"Don't take pictures," snapped a lady minding the gate at the Temple of the Sun. "Don't talk to anyone," she added after recording a reporter's credentials in a log book.

The lush Purple Bamboo Park buzzed with the sound of crickets and cicadas, and lovers and anglers dotted the shores of a vast former 13th century reservoir whose waters churned with carp.

But any potential protesters there would be outnumbered by the young men in identical Olympic-themed t-shirts, some with earphones that marked them as security guards, who appeared from nowhere at nearly every turn.

Critics have dismissed the protest parks as an empty gesture by China, which faces a range of internal discontent, from displaced farmers to Beijing residents whose homes were destroyed for Games venues.

Overseas activists complain about Tibet, human rights and China's close ties to unsavory regimes in Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Some Chinese activists are expected to try to beat the very long odds of getting permission to protest amid the tight security China has imposed for the Aug 8-24 Games. Police, however, declined to comment on how many applications they had handled as of Wednesday.

Protests over the Games -- an immense source of pride for China -- are not likely to go down well with Chinese, analysts have warned.

One middle-aged man at the Purple Bamboo Park was surprised when asked if he knew he was entering a demonstration zone.

"Really? I didn't know. But why are Westerners so opposed to China's hosting the Olympics?" asked the man, who gave only his surname, Wang.

(Editing by Miles Evans)

(For more stories visit our multimedia website "Road to Beijing" here)

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