You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

China, Protector Of Freedom? Doubtful.

As Beijing gears up to host this year's Olympic Games, we asked Perry Link, professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, to give us his perspective on how China is responding to the challenge. He will be guest-blogging for us over the next few weeks:

The Chinese government, speaking through the top security official for the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, has named three parks in Beijing where "the police will safeguard the right to demonstrate." Some have hailed this as a breakthrough.

Hmmm. The Chinese Constitution (Article 35) states that "citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration." In theory this grand pronouncement covers all of China, all 9.6 million square kilometers. Now we have the "breakthrough" of rights being safeguarded in an area about one millionth the size of the whole.

And even there, the safeguarding will apply to foreign protesters only. No sane Chinese will imagine that expression of unapproved opinion on an issue that China's rulers consider "sensitive" (e.g., the June Fourth Massacre, Falungong, corruption among families of the top leaders, or independence for Taiwan, Tibet, or the Uighur nation) can be done without fearsome cost. Plainclothes police will be watching, as will cameras. The New York Times has reported that Honeywell, General Electric, and United Technologies "have all been aggressively pursuing contracts in China to sell advanced surveillance equipment from the United States."

For foreign protesters, the carving out of a few "free speech zones" will seem to fall into a pattern that cities hosting G8 meetings have used and that Athens adopted in hosting the 2004 Olympic Games. But for Beijing citizens, another pattern will come to mind. In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping wanted to show popular support for his reversal of Maoist policies, he briefly allowed free expression at a "Democracy Wall" on Chang'an Street in the Xidan District. After a few months, when Deng had heard enough, he decided to bottle things up. But he couldn't just close the Wall. That would be too big a loss of face. (He had to continue pretending that the Chinese people have "freedom of speech," after all.) So the Wall was "moved" to Ritan Park, where people had to sign in and give their addresses and work-unit names before posting anything. Anyone whose opinion was "incorrect" then got a visit from authorities.

The same Ritan Park is one of the three "protest zones" this time around.

--Perry Link