Would-Be Protesters Detained in China
By ANDREW JACOBS
Published: August 18, 2008
BEIJING — When Gao Chuancai slipped into the capital last week hoping to stage a one-man rally against corruption in his village in northeast China, he knew his chances of success were slim.
During his decade-long crusade, Mr. Gao, a 45-year-old farmer from Heilongjiang Province, had been jailed a dozen times. Two beatings by the police left him with broken bones and shattered his teeth, he said, but did little to temper his drive.
The government’s recent announcement that preapproved protests would be allowed at three sites during the Olympic Games gave him a wisp of hope. Two weeks ago he mailed in his application, and last week he came to Beijing to follow up. During a visit to the Public Security Bureau on Wednesday, the police interviewed him for an hour and then told him to return in five days for his answer. “They’ll probably arrest me when I go back,” he said afterward.
Mr. Gao did not have to wait very long. A few hours later, he was picked up by the authorities and escorted back to Heilongjiang. On Monday, his son, Gao Jiaqing, in the family’s village, Xingyi, said he had not heard from him.
A man who picked up the phone at the Wanggang police station, near Xingyi, acknowledged that Mr. Gao was being detained at a local hotel. “He’s under our control now,” said the officer, Wang Zhuang.
Mr. Gao’s ill-fated odyssey is not unlike the journeys of other would-be demonstrators who responded to the government’s notice that protest zones would be set up during the Games. At least three other applicants are in custody. Two, Ji Sizun and Tang Xuecheng, were seized during the interview process at the Public Security Bureau, according to human rights activists.
On Monday, 10 days into the Games, the government had yet to permit a single demonstration in any of the official protest zones. According to a report on Monday by Xinhua, the official news agency, 77 applications have been received since Aug. 1, from 149 people.
All but three applications, however, were withdrawn after the authorities satisfactorily addressed the petitioners’ concerns, Xinhua said. Two of the remaining requests were rejected because the applicants failed to provide adequate information, and the last was rejected after the authorities determined it violated laws on demonstrations.
Protests are not illegal in China, but they require government approval, a prospect that often dissuades citizens, daunted by excessive bureaucracy or potential retaliation. Posters and slogans must be submitted to the police, and each participant must apply in person. Any rally deemed a threat to “social stability and public order” can be denied permission, and most are.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a private group based in New York, said he and other rights advocates had been skeptical that China would fulfill its pledge to allow greater free speech during the Olympic Games. Still, he said, the International Olympic Committee should be held accountable for not pressing China on the issue. “The I.O.C. seems oblivious to the fact that they’re holding the Games in a repressive environment,” he said.
Giselle Davies, spokeswoman for the I.O.C., said that she hoped Beijing would follow the path of other host cities and allow demonstrations in designated areas but that the issue was one for local officials to decide.
The days Mr. Gao spent in Beijing were both nerve-racking and exhilarating for him. He said he knew that the police from Heilongjiang were on his trail, but he was buoyed by the possibility that a foreign reporter might tell his story. “With the Olympics here, now is the best time to remind the world that China still has problems that need to be solved,” he said.
His handwritten poster listed a series of grievances against Xingyi and Wanggang officials. He accused them of stealing money meant to compensate farmers after their land was confiscated and described how he was jailed and beaten for publicizing his allegations. Last year, he wrote, his wife swallowed a fatal dose of pesticides at the Wanggang government building in the futile hope that she might shame officials into releasing the money owed to Mr. Gao and his neighbors. Mr. Gao said that his wife had been suffering from breast cancer and that the couple could no longer afford treatment.
The police arrested Mr. Gao, saying he had given her the poison. A court released him, but the police warned him against continuing his campaign. Mr. Gao said the police told him that if he caused trouble again, he could be killed.
He was not deterred. When he arrived in Beijing, he slept in a different hotel or bathhouse each night. By checking in around midnight and leaving at dawn, he said he hoped to evade security officials who often trace people through their registration information. He made sure to leave his cellphone at home and called his son only from public phones.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Gao’s son said he was worried about his father, but he also expressed resignation.
“I used to try to stop him but now I don’t bother,” said the son. “He has been through so much but he keeps on chasing his dream of justice.” He sighed, then added, “I fully support him.”