BEIJING — China will allow a modicum of dissent at the Olympics, setting up special protest zones far from the main sports venues, in a shift that supporters and detractors said Wednesday is meant to safely channel criticism and avoid disrupting the games.
The designated protest areas will be in parts of three public parks, none of them closer than several miles from the main Olympic stadium. One zone is in a park that features large-scale mock-ups of the White House and other world monuments, raising the prospect that protesters will appear to be elsewhere in televised images and news photos.
In making the announcement, the Beijing Olympic organizing committee's security director, Liu Shaowu, cited the use of protest areas at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"People or protesters who want to express their personal opinions can go to do so," Liu told reporters.
The move, however, doesn't mean Beijing is inviting a flood of protests at the games, which open in 16 days. Liu suggested demonstrators would need to apply for permission in advance.
Tightened visa checks have prevented or deterred foreign groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists from coming to Beijing, although actor Mia Farrow's Dream for Darfur said its visa application was pending. Overseas broadcasters, such as NBC which paid hundreds of millions of dollars to air the games, are still wrangling with organizers over restrictions on live coverage around the city.
"Until it begins, we will not know how the officials and police will react," said John Barton, director of sport for the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, which represents broadcasters in 57 countries. "It's a lottery."
Beijing is now ringed with police checkpoints, designed to keep out bomb-making materials, would-be terrorists and domestic protesters, and dotted with half-empty hotels. But it is also festooned with banners, creating an odd mixture of festiveness and tension.
Still, the decision to permit even small demonstrations marks a turnaround for an authoritarian government that has seemed set on smothering any protests at an Olympics it wants to be a flawless celebration of a friendly, modern China.
"This will allow people to protest without disrupting the Olympics," said Ni Jianping, director of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies, who lobbied Chinese leaders to set up the protest zones. "We're giving people a platform to express their views."
While protests have become common throughout China _ from workers upset about factory layoffs to farmers angry about land confiscation _ the communist leadership remains wary about large demonstrations, fearing they could snowball into widespread anti-government movements. Three violent protests have occurred in far-flung provinces in recent weeks.
After foreign groups critical of China's human rights, media controls and foreign policies in places like Sudan's Darfur area began targeting the Olympics a year ago, Beijing ramped up an intelligence-collection effort to identify critics to keep them out. The melee of protests that greeted Beijing's international torch relay in April brought a redoubling of efforts.
Amid the uproar, some sought to persuade Beijing that flexibility and openness would deflect the criticism. Ni, working with Susan Brownell, an American academic at Beijing Sports University, pointed out there were protest zones at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 as a positive example in a paper forwarded to officials they declined to identify.
Security is still the utmost priority. Liu, the security official, reiterated the government's view that terrorism poses a great threat, saying the half-million expected visitors offer an opportunity for terrorists to infiltrate. Brownell said Chinese leaders would not have agreed to protests unless they felt it would enhance control.
"It was about placating the West. They were really concerned about social order," said Brownell, a China expert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "They must have come up with a plan to improve social order rather than make it worse."
Human rights campaigners assailed the protest zones as cosmetic, with one likening them to a "fishbowl" _ sealed off from society at large.
"Designating unilaterally 'protest zones' for demonstrators does not equate to respecting the right to demonstrate, because in this situation control comes first and the right second," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.
Signs abound that the government intends to keep a tight rein. Housing activist Ye Guozhu, who was jailed for trying to organize a protest of evictions for Beijing's Olympic makeover, was taken from the Chaobai Prison to an undisclosed location Tuesday, four days before his release, said the China Human Rights Defenders activist group.
In Shanghai, which hosts preliminary Olympic soccer games, dissident lawyer Zheng Enchong was taken away Wednesday by police, Bequelin said. Police in Shanghai and Beijing said they did not know about those two cases.
The special protest areas are not near the Olympic green where most venues, the main media centers and the medal ceremonies are concentrated, but rather are in distant parks: the World Park in the southwest, three miles from the softball field; the Purple Bamboo Park in the west, south of the volleyball arena; and Ritan Park in the east, near no venues.
Mention of the protest zones was expunged from the briefing's official transcript. Ni, the Shanghai scholar, said that Chinese protesters may be allowed only in the rather far World Park, not in the other venues.
Liu also reiterated that Chinese regulations require that all protesters apply and receive permission in advance. "Generally speaking, we will invite those participants to demonstrate their demonstrations in designated places, and this is also a common practice in other countries," Liu said.
Even if protests do occur, they are unlikely to find favor with Chinese at large. The raucous protests abroad of the Olympic torch relay incited a patriotic backlash among Chinese. Brownell said her research found that many Chinese view the Olympics as a solemn affair in which they are inviting guests into their homes and all sides should show respect.
"Whereas we see controlled protests as a way of venting steam, Chinese see this as inviting people to riot," she said.
Associated Press reporters Stephen Wade in Beijing and Lily Hindy in New York contributed to this report.