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VIEWPOINT: Malcontents need not apply

By Nicholas Kristof BEIJING -- To put a smiley face on its image during the Olympics, the Chinese government set aside three "protest zones" in Beijing. Officials explained that so long as protesters obtained approval in advance, demonstrations w...

By Nicholas Kristof

BEIJING -- To put a smiley face on its image during the Olympics, the Chinese government set aside three "protest zones" in Beijing. Officials explained that so long as protesters obtained approval in advance, demonstrations would be allowed.

So, I decided to test the system.

Following government instructions, I showed up at an office of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, found Window 12 and declared to the officer, "I'm here to apply to hold a protest."

What I didn't realize is that Public Security has arrested at least a half-dozen people who have shown up to apply for protest permits. Public Security is pretty shrewd. In the old days, it had to go out and catch protesters in the act. Now, it saves itself the bother: Would-be protesters show up at Public Security offices to apply for permits and are promptly detained. That's cost-effective law enforcement for you.


Fortunately, the official at Window 12 didn't peg me as a counterrevolutionary. He looked at me worriedly and asked for my passport and other ID papers. Discovering that I was a journalist, he asked hopefully, "Wouldn't you rather conduct an interview about demonstrations?"

"No. I want to apply to hold one."

His brow furrowed. "What do you want to protest?"

"I want to demonstrate in favor of preserving Beijing's historic architecture." It was the least controversial, most insipid topic I could concoct.

"Do you think the government is not doing a good job at this?" he asked sternly.

"There may be room for improvement," I said delicately.

The official frowned and summoned two senior colleagues who, after a series of frantic phone calls, led me into the heart of the police building. I was accompanied by a Times videographer, and he and a police videographer busily videoed each other. Then the police explained that under the rules they could video us, but we couldn't video them.

The Public Security Bureau (a fancy name for a police station) gleams like much of the rest of Beijing. It is a lovely, spacious building, and the room we were taken to was beautifully furnished; no folding metal chairs here. It's a fine metaphor for China's legal system: The hardware is impeccable, but the software is primitive.


Three police officers sat across from me, and the police videographer continued to film us from every angle. The officers were all cordial and professional, although one seemed to be daydreaming about pulling out my fingernails.

Then they spent nearly an hour going over the myriad rules for demonstrations. These were detailed and complex, and, most daunting, I would have to submit a list of every single person attending my demonstration. The list had to include names and identity document numbers.

In addition, any Chinese on a name list would have to go first to the Public Security Bureau in person to be interviewed (arrested?).

"If I go through all this, then will my application at least be granted?" I asked.

"How can we tell?" a policeman responded. "That would prejudge the process."

"Well, has any application ever been granted?" I asked.

"We can't answer that, for that matter has no connection to this case."

I surrendered. The rules were so monstrously bureaucratic that I couldn't even apply for a demonstration. My Olympic dreams were dashed. The police asked me to sign their note-taker's account of the meeting, and we politely said our goodbyes.


Yet even though the process is a charade, it still represents progress in China, in that the law implicitly acknowledges the legitimacy of protest. Moreover, a trickle of Chinese have applied to hold protests, even though they know that they are more likely to end up in jail than in a "protest zone." Fear of the government is ebbing.

My hunch is that in the coming months, perhaps after the Olympics, we will see some approvals granted. China is changing: it is no democracy, but it's also no longer a totalitarian state.

China today reminds me of Taiwan in the mid-1980s as a rising middle class demanded more freedom. Almost every country around China, from Mongolia to Indonesia, Thailand to South Korea, has become more open and less repressive -- not because of the government's kindness but because of the people's insistence.

I feel that same process happening here, albeit agonizingly slowly. Someday, China's software will catch up with its hardware.

Kristof writes for The New York Times.

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