Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Beijing to set up Olympic protest zones in parks

Beijing will set up specially designated zones for protesters during next month's Olympics, a security official said Wednesday, in a sign China's authoritarian government may allow some demonstrations during the games.

Areas are being set aside in three public parks near some of the sporting venues, said Liu Shaowu, director for security for the Beijing Olympic organizing committee.

''We will invite demonstrators to hold their demonstrations in designated places,'' Liu told a news conference.

In a sign that Beijing is eager to minimize disruptions by demonstrations, the three protest areas are in outlying parks, not near the Olympic green where the largest number of sports venues are.

Liu reiterated that Chinese law requires all demonstrations be approved by police in advance, but when asked by reporters he declined to say whether that applied to the protest zones.

Special protest zones have been part of past Olympics, including the 2004 games in Athens.

But Beijing's decision marks the end of months of internal debate over whether allowing public protests might backfire, disrupting China's attempts to use the games to boost its image overseas and the government's popularity at home.

Protests abroad against China's restrictions on human rights and media freedoms and an uprising by Tibetans and alleged terrorist plots by Muslims in western China have prompted the government to ramp up security nationwide.

Visa sweeps against foreigners, efforts to encourage migrant workers to leave Beijing and police checkpoints in and around the city have touched off criticism that heavy-handed security may drain the fun from the Olympics.

Liu, the security official, said police were trying to strike a balance between the need for safety and the desire for festiveness. ''We are confident we can give the Beijing Olympics a good and joyous atmosphere,'' he said.

When it comes to security, Liu said the large numbers of people expected in Beijing during the games made it a ripe target for terrorist infiltration.

Though he declined to specify terrorist threats, police officials have said in recent months that they have foiled plans by Muslim separatists connected to the games.

-- Associated Press

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