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Beijing Says It Will Allow Protests in Certain Areas During Olympics

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BEIJING -- After months of insisting on a non-politicized Olympics, a jittery Beijing has agreed to allow protests during the Games in three public parks with prior approval, a top official said Wednesday.

Unspecified forms of protest would be allowed under Beijing's overall security plan, which includes stringent efforts to maintain public order, Liu Shaowu, director of security for the Beijing organizing committee, told reporters. It was unclear exactly how or when protesters would need to register with the local government.

"We have [made] top efforts to preserve public order, crack down on law violations and resolve issues affecting public order and safety," Liu said. He said Beijing was "facing a lot of risks" from potential terrorist attacks, a statement that has been often repeated by Chinese officials without mentioning any specific threats.

"To this end, the Olympic Security Department has done a lot to give a full play to all professional organizations and the whole society to participate in the Olympic security work and crack down on all the disturbances," he said.

The announcement comes after months of speculation over how the city would deal with protests over issues like Tibet and Darfur as it attempts to present itself under the slogan "One World One Dream." Pressure from international groups, including the International Olympic Committee, which has claimed the Olympics has advanced press and political freedoms in China.

But even with the protest allowance, it is unclear just how far the government will be willing to go. Currently, Beijing is in a state of virtual lock-down with persisting limitations on foreign press coverage and entertainment, leading to complaints that Beijing's Games will be the "no fun" Olympics.

The city has mobilized about half a million volunteers to help maintain security and promote the image of a "harmonious society." The volunteers are joined by about 100,000 police, 200,000 security guards plus soldiers and special forces units.

Though the Communist Party normally forbids all forms of organized protest, it has sanctioned several small anti-Japanese protests in Beijing and other cities in recent years. At the Athens Games in 2004, officials also sanctioned protests in designated areas.

Olympic protests will be allowed at three parks far from the Olympic Green. Ritan, or Altar to the Sun Park, which is located near Beijing's Central Business District, Shijie Gongyuan, or the World Park, in Fengtai, far south of the city center, and in Zizhuyuan, or Purple Bamboo Park, which is located in Beijing's west.

The government's anxieties about foreigners coming to Beijing to protest, especially over Tibet and Darfur, has resulted in expulsions and strict visa restrictions. In July, the British Tibetan woman Dechen Pemba was expelled shortly after arriving Beijing.

And rumors of protests on Tiananmen Square, where supporters of Tibetan independence and the Falun Gong religious sect have previously errected banners and even self-immolated, have led Beijing officials to restrict live television coverage of the area to specific times of day.

Various countries' Olympic committees have asked their athletes to obey the Olympic charter, which forbids "political, religious or racial propaganda... in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

In February, British Olympic officials retracted an order forbidding athletes from commenting on politically sensitive issues. In mid-April, the French Olympic Committee banned athletes from wearing badges reading "For a better world" at the Games opening ceremony. The Australian Olympic Committee has told its athletes they can discuss anything they want in media interviews and on blogs, but cannot make political protests inside venues.

Some athletes have indicated they would find ways to get around the rules, either by making vocal statements, wearing armbands or ribbons or flashing a T hand sign, to signal support for the Tibetan cause. Several members of Team Darfur, an informal group of 360 athletes that formed two years ago to draw attention to the conflict affecting millions in western Sudan, will compete in Beijing.

In perhaps the most famous Olympic protest by athletes, black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black glove covered fists at the 1968 Mexico Games.

Meanwhile, local dissidents have reportedly been arrested or pressured to remain quiet during the Games. In the far western province of Xinjiang, home to China's Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, an anti-separatist and anti-terror campaign has been in full effect.

Local officials have been instructed to keep public demonstrations to a minimum in the lead-up to the Games. But protests continue outside of Beijing, as the public airs its grievances over issues like land seizure and pollution. A bus bombing Monday in Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan province, followed a violent clash in a nearby village between police and 500 rubber farmers. Two protesters were killed.