After Friend Disappears, Ji Sizun Confronts Police and is Detained Himself (Updated)

When the Chinese government announced at the end of July that it would set up special zones where people could demonstrate during the Beijing Olympics, it seemed almost too good to be true. For months, the country had been under fire from critics who accused it of trying to kill dissent ahead of the games.

While optimists said the fact that Beijing is allowing any public protest at all is a victory for human rights, pessimists worried that the whole thing was a set up and the applications would be used to round up protesters and control their movements during the games.

China maintained that its promise to allow protesters in three parks was sincere, but there was a catch: You had to apply for a permit.

Our news assistant, Crissie Ding, and I were interested in learning more about the application process for a protest permit. So we decided to meet up with Ji Sizun, 58, a legal advocate from the coastal province of Fujian who came to Beijing to demonstrate against corruption.

Unlike other petitioners who typically come to the capital with specific grievances such as a land dispute or requests for more retirement pay, Ji was more ambitious. The three-page application he had typed out said he was seeking to protest "to stop local-level governments from using their authority to attack or get revenge on the people who go and petition for their rights."

This was his second attempt at applying for a protest permit.

On Tuesday, Aug. 5, he and a friend had planned to go together to apply. Ji was taking the bus from the apartment he was renting and his friend, Tang Xuecheng, 44, who owns a gold mining company in Hunan Province, was taking a taxi from his hotel. They agreed to meet at the security bureau. While Ji was on his way, he got a phone call from Tang. Tang said he was calling from a toilet compartment in the bathrooms at the security bureau. "Don't come," he said. "My personal freedoms are being restricted." Then he hung up. Spooked, Ji turned around and went back home. Later that evening, he tried to call Tang but he got an out of service message.

After a few days passed and he still couldn't reach his friend, Ji became frantic. Tang had officially disappeared. Ji decided he needed to go back and confront officials about his friend and file his protest application.

On Saturday morning at around 10:15 a.m., we met him on the street a few blocks away from the security bureau.

He had invited a handful of journalists along, he said, for his protection. We walked around the corner with him to the office charged with handling the protest applications. As soon as we entered the lobby, however, a half dozen police officers came out and told us we had to leave.

Because I was holding a video camera, I became a target. Several of the police officers directed their shouting at me. I motioned to our news assistant, Crissie, to hand me the equipment she was carrying and to try to get inside without me. It was, after all, set up as a public place where ordinary citizens could file their grievances.

As she made her way to the registration desk, a man in plain clothes grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me roughly towards the door. But I was stuck. I was getting crushed between him and a half-dozen other police and a Hong Kong film crew that was filming blocking the door. I called out in English, "Stop touching me!" and put my camera to the man's face and started filming. The man immediately let go and put up his hands in front of him.

Meanwhile, Crissie had made it inside but had been told to sit in the waiting area and keep quiet.

As we waited outside, the security officers stood in a line at the door facing us so that we could not see inside. Every few minutes, they snapped pictures of us.

(Ariana Eunjung Cha - The Washington Post)


Inside, Ji had been taken alone to a small interview room, Crissie told me in a short text message to my phone. There were two security officers with Ji. Another 12 were outside guarding him--and watching us. At around noon, Ji came out for a few seconds to say, "They are wasting my time." He said they weren't taking notes about what he was saying and would not answer any of his questions. Then he was called back in.

At 12:10 p.m., Ji practically ran out of the security bureau office. "Let's leave here," he said. Two of the plain clothes security officers that had been in the bureau followed us for about a block until, suddenly, Ji ran into the street and hailed a taxi and motioned for us to get in.

Once safely inside the vehicle, an agitated Ji said the security officials denied even meeting Tang and that they would never detain anyone. Furthermore, Ji said they told him he wouldn't be able to file his application even though the office is open because it's the weekend.

Ji said he was headed to Purple Bamboo Park, about a half-hour northwest of Tiananmen Square by car, one of three areas designated as protest zones. He wanted to take a look around, to see if there were any demonstrations taking place.

Predictably, there were no protesters, but as we chatted on a bench in the park, a couple and another man watched us. We were suspicious about who they were. State security maybe? We noticed they switched benches to be closer to us. As it turned out, they were listening in. But they weren't with the government.

They, too, were wanna-be protesters. One of the men was owner of an engineering company in Shandong Province and was having trouble with a local official he said was corrupt and stole all his assets. They had hoped to turn in their application in the next few days but after hearing Ji's story they weren't so sure. The businessman's wife was especially alarmed: "I don't know if what he says is true, but if it is we don't want to get arrested."

On Monday afternoon, Ji called to say he had returned to the police station and had been detained. We haven't been able to reach him since.

-- Ariana Eunjung Cha

Update:

Below is some more information about Ji and other would-be protestors from Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group based in New York.

China: Police Detain Would-Be Olympic Protesters
Increasing Repression of Activists, Media Sources; No Protests Approved Yet

(New York, August 13, 2008) - 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."

August 12, 2008; 9:00 PM ET  | Category:  Postmark Beijing
Previous: Actor Jonathan Kos-Read On Foreigners in Chinese Soap Operas | Next: Opening Ceremony Dancer Possibly Paralyzed and Other Scoops by Chinese Media

Comments

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Is anybody REALLY surprised at this? China will NEVER let their people openly say anything against the State. I'm sure at the end of the games, the government will say "We opened areas to protest, but had no applications to protest anything".

Posted by: HR Advocate | August 13, 2008 8:17 AM

I love china.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 13, 2008 8:47 AM

I'm very disappointed in the IOC for awarding China the Olympics based on promises. China may be a economic powerhouse, but it's still in the political stone age and nowhere near ready for prime time. CNN just broadcasted the arrest of one of its ACCREDITED journalists for covering a small pro-Tibet demo. They really got rough with the poor guy, very heavy handed. Gee, didn't they promise not to interfer with accredited journalists? Again, I'm very disappointed in the IOC's rush to reward China, but not at all surprised China failed to live up to its commitments.

Posted by: Kevin | August 13, 2008 6:07 PM

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