07/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Can't the Chinese Authorities Allow a Little Space for Protests During the Olympics?

This is a shorter and revised version of two blog postings originally posted on The China Beat as "Olympic FAQs #4 and 5."

How is Beijing Planning to Handle Political Protests during the Olympic Games?

One of the most important issues for the upcoming Beijing Olympics is whether activists will attempt to carry out public protests and demonstrations, and how the Chinese authorities will react if they do. Many non-Chinese have been wondering if the Chinese authorities were so naïve about the attitude toward China in the West that they were taken by surprise by the protests during the international torch relay. The answer to this question appears to be: Yes. This even though Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games had probably been the most politically-contested bid ever. In 2001 Moscow police arrested 21 anti-China protesters, including a Tibetan monk, in the two days leading up to the IOC vote on the 2008 host city.

One measure of the lack of anticipation is the slowness with which public statements have emerged about how protests will be handled during the Olympic Games. Well after the torch relay uproar, on June 2, BOCOG released the "Legal Guidelines during the Olympic Games for Foreigners to Enter the Country and for the Period of their Stay in China" (in Chinese - translations are my own). The most relevant statement was hidden near the very end as the answer to Question #55: "Holding assemblies, marches, and protests must be applied for at a public security office according to the law. Those who have not received a permit cannot hold an associated activity." It is not clear how often Chinese groups apply for these permits and what usually happens when they do, or what would happen if a foreign group applied during the Olympics.

The "Manual for Beijing Olympic Volunteers" that was released on May 30 contained no instructions to volunteers about how to handle political protests, even though BOCOG is aware of the display of a Republic of China (Taiwan) banner at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games (described in another posting on The China Beat), which resulted in the arrest of a spectator, and has published the statements on the backs of the admission tickets that will provide a legal basis for ejecting spectators who engage in political protests.

For the Beijing Olympics the IOC is particularly concerned to enforce Rule 51.3 of the Olympic Charter - which states that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas" - but the IOC claims no authority over spaces outside the venues, where city and national laws apply. The 2008 Candidature Manual for Host Cities, a legally-binding document upon which the Host City Contract is based, asked for "a guarantee from the highest government authority of the country that the government will make the necessary efforts to guarantee the safety and the peaceful celebration of the Olympic Games." But in terms of concrete measures, it only asks the host city to specify the measures that will be taken to prevent terrorism by international groups (2008 Candidature Manual for Host Cities, 12.2, 12.1).

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the equestrian event organizers had a great deal of concern about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which had recently protested equestrian events in very dramatic ways. A protest area was assigned to them near the equestrian events, but in the end they did not use it. At the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Falungong adherents performed their meditation exercises on an almost daily basis in Syntagma Square, and so far as I know met with no interference and attracted little media attention.

It is not well-known that "free speech zones" were set up at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter because it was anticipated that large numbers of protesters would appear. Groups who applied for a permit would be allowed to protest in a designated area during a designated time. It was believed that this was the first Olympics to institute this practice. Seven "free speech zones" were set up near different venues. The ACLU approved the plan but either they were not used, or if they were slightly used, the media did not pay any attention. The zones are not mentioned in the section on security in the Official Report of those Games.

Knowing that there was international precedent, I started wondering whether it might be feasible to set up protest zones during the Beijing Olympics. I found that when I brought it up with Westerners they generally thought it was a good idea. There is something of a precedent in China - during the 1995 U.N. International Conference on Women, protests took place at the NGO meetings, which were sequestered outside Beijing in Huairou. A Chinese friend who now works for BOCOG still recalls with amusement the nude protests there. I started asking Chinese colleagues, friends, and acquaintances from academic, government, and corporate backgrounds this question:

Why Can't the Chinese Authorities Allow a Little Space for Protests during the Olympics?

Of course, the easy answer to this question is: Because there is almost no freedom of assembly in China and there are big restrictions on freedom of expression. But I have started to realize that this answer is too simple. The people whose views I summarize here are college-educated (in China), middle-class, internationally-informed (but not educated abroad), and between the ages of 30 and 55. The reactions I got surprised me and made me realize the huge gulf that exists between Western and Chinese views on the topic of protests. They all had a gut reaction to the idea of public protests that was unfavorable.

Some of them expressed that the protests surrounding the torch relay presented a new view of the West, because they did not fully understand that such protests are common there. My guess is that while they knew about them, perhaps they had never seen so many visual images on TV and in the media. However, it seems to me that the way in which this coverage was handled in China left many people with the false impression that protests like these occur in London and Paris nearly every day, a portrait they regard with distaste. Let me to try to outline the system of beliefs that produces this reaction.

First, there is the cultural background of host-guest relations. There is a highly-refined protocol between a host and a guest in China; this also extends to Chinese conventions for the expression of mutual respect between states, which historically were more highly developed than that of the West. In the summer of 2006 He Zhenliang, China's senior member in the International Olympic Committee, spoke passionately to me about hosts and guests. For him, the Beijing Games were China's opportunity to return the hospitality of the previous host nations and to welcome the world as China's guest. Chinese custom is to put the guest in the seat of honor, feed him the special foods, and give him the special gifts unique to the host's hometown. The cultural performances in the Olympic opening ceremonies are like the unique foods that you receive as a guest, which are not available in your hometown. Mr. He anticipated that there would be negative Western media coverage and he explained that Chinese people see this as disrespectful, because it is as if the host invited a guest to his home and the guest responded by criticizing him. He cited Pierre de Coubertin's notion of "le respect mutuel," and stated that journalism that serves the West's appetite for "curiosities" - highlighting China's differences with the West rather than its commonalities, its deficiencies rather than its accomplishments - is disrespectful to China and to the Olympic ideals (see the final chapter of my recent book, Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China).

In conversations with more average Chinese people I have encountered the same reaction. In the Chinese tradition, host-guest meetings are highly ritualized and ceremonial, an occasion when the guest should respect the "face" of the host. The image of protests taking place outside the Bird's Nest Stadium, where a splendid ceremony of international friendship is supposed to be taking place, would be "ugly." Everyone recognizes that this means they are engaging in "appearance-ism" (形式主义), which is said to be a key feature of Chinese society (sometimes jokingly, sometimes with some bitterness). The proverb that "family shame should not be made public" (家丑不可外扬)is often quoted to express it. As one of my colleagues put it: It's like when there is a wedding in the family. Actually, the members of the family do not get along with each other. But they put on a show for outsiders during the wedding.

An acquaintance who has a degree in international relations further observed that in China the custom is to first invite the guest to your home to allow him/her to "understand" you and build trust, and only later to try to talk through differences. "Mutual understanding" (互相理解) facilitates the later negotiations. To try to work out all differences ahead of time would be ridiculous.

Needless to say, this is the context within which protests by Chinese Tibetans during the Olympic Games would be judged. Perhaps this is one reason that the Dalai Lama, who should understand Chinese culture well enough to know this, has recently come out with strong statements against the disruption of the Olympic Games through protests.

A related factor is the negative attitude toward criticism. Chinese people generally seem to feel that "critics" are poorly regarded in China. Yi Jiandong, one of whose blog postings I previously translated on The China Beat, said that the tagline on his blogsite, "Yi Jiandong's space: an independent critical voice, realizing the value of constructive action, growing along with the Olympics," had largely received negative reactions because readers do not understand how a critical voice can be socially constructive. He observed that a common attitude toward criticism is that it expresses a kind of moral arrogance and "undermines the collective." Currently the media are discussing the idea that China now needs the "third reform" of the reform era, which is "thought liberation." One of the elements of thought liberation is the idea that political leaders should accept criticism from the people on the one hand, and that the people should allow leaders to make mistakes on the other. This idea is being debated and there is by no means a consensus on it.

People in official leadership positions very often do not grasp the concept that criticism can have a constructive function, either, and that is why they do not appreciate the watchdog function that a free media could play if it were free to criticize them. Even less so do they appreciate that Western media criticism of China could have a constructive function. I feel that in evaluating their viewpoints it is important to keep in mind that the current cohort of leadership in China who are 50-60 years old came of age during the Cultural Revolution, when they were exposed to practices of extreme criticism which were very destructive. A constructive response to criticism is based on mutual trust. As a teacher, I have noticed that most of my students must learn to engage with criticism rather than to get angry and retreat, which seems to be the human knee-jerk reaction. There is a generation of people in power in China right now in whom a healthy approach to criticism may never have been cultivated.

The Westerners I spoke to see protest zones as a way of ensuring that demonstrations are controlled and do not lead to widespread rioting, but my Chinese respondents all felt that protest zones would spark rioting rather than control it. They all subscribe to what I might call the "powder-keg" theory of Chinese society. They feel that because of growing inequities Chinese society is unstable, and that one public protest could ignite another and another, and soon the whole country would be protesting and everything would collapse. It is strange for them to imagine that in the West it might be common for one group to hold public protests while everyone else just walks by on their way to work. They state that the problem of "surrounding onlookers" (围观)is common in China. If there were a protest zone outside the Bird's Nest Stadium, soon a crowd would gather. Before you know it, you'd have a riot. They stated that the social problems facing China today are too complex to be solved immediately and that is why it would be better to keep the lid on protests for the near future. Continued rapid economic development is the only hope for the resolution of these problems.

Several of the people I talked to said that the only way "protest zones" could be implemented would be if they were located in an isolated area away from the events, as was the case for the 1995 NGO meetings in Huairou. I noted with interest June 9 reports stating that, starting in July, the Beijing government had decided to relocate provincial residents coming to Beijing to petition government offices into the World Park in Fengtai, a 6.7-hectare amusement park with reduced-scale displays of 50 countries. The petitioners would be given food and drink inside the park. This was said to imitate England's Hyde Park and to demonstrate that the authorities are "people-oriented" (以人为本) and respect human rights.

What interests me is the rather unusual choice of location. It evokes the amusing idea that any foreigners who apply for permission to protest during the Olympic Games might be given a time and space at the World Park, perhaps even in front of their own country's exhibit, where they would be just another exotic performance. This somewhat reflects the spirit in which my Chinese friend recalls the protest demonstrations at the NGO meeting site in Huairou during the 1995 UN Women's Conference. Based on my discussions, I feel that this is one of the few places where protests by foreigners could be acceptable to those in charge of Beijing's Olympic security as well as to the average middle-class Chinese person. Conversely, if the authorities allowed a space for unruly protests near the main sports events, public opinion would probably be against it.

I would like to make clear that what I have tried to do here is to outline common Chinese attitudes about public protests during the Beijing Olympics. These ideas are not my own and I am not saying that they are accurate from a social-scientific perspective - but that is another question. And I have not analyzed the real power differences and political structure that are another important part of the picture - people in leadership positions don't have to accept media criticism because their job security depends almost entirely on the leaders above them who appointed them and not on public transparency. However, it seems to me that this political structure is at least partly supported by a cultural context that is not supportive of organized, peaceful public protests as are common in the West.