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Kristi Heim: The World in China

Seattle Times reporter Kristi Heim explores a changing China on the world stage.

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August 14, 2008 12:20 AM

Looking at protests in China, then and now

Posted by Kristi Heim

Once upon a time the Chinese government actively encouraged freedom of speech and solicited public criticism about the political system.

It was called the Hundred Flowers Campaign, begun in 1956 with a poem "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend."

The movement went along for about a year until Mao felt his power threatened. Then, with their identities and opinions exposed, many of the critics were rounded up and jailed, and the chilling effect on dissent was felt for years to come. Some say that was the intention all along.

That piece of history is interesting to think about in the context of events over the last week.

A grassroots legal activist, Ji Sizun, is being detained after he applied to demonstrate legally in one of the designated "protest zones" established for the Beijing Olympics, according to Human Rights Watch. Ji, 58, went to a police station in Beijing for a permit to hold a protest, stating he would call for greater participation of Chinese citizens in the political process, and denounce official corruption and abuses of power. He was arrested on Monday when he returned to check on the status of his application.

There were other incidents, including the arrest of two Christian activists on their way to church and the manhandling of a British TV reporter by police. Ji's case conflicts directly with promises Beijing made to the International Olympic Committee to allow protests in public parks with prior approval.

Krist's photos 156.jpg

The topic came up in a heated news conference this morning, when several reporters grilled IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies and Beijing Olympic Committee executive vice president Wang Wei about the issue. One reporter repeatedly asked Davies whether the IOC was embarrassed about the failure of those pledges.

Wang, who was secretary general of the committee that bid for the games, responded with an impassioned speech.

China enjoys greater freedom today than it has in the last 30 years, he said. "Everybody is happy. People are optimistic about their own future," he said. "Of course there are exceptions like in any other country," he added. "Some people are not satisfied. That's true."

Wang said that while "we welcome suggestions, constructive advice from all the people, a few people come here to be critical, to dig into small details to find fault. That does not mean we are not fulfilling our promise."

The media should pay more attention to the prevailing sentiment of ordinary people, he said. "You cannot underestimate the wisdom of the Chinese people."

If that's true, then it would make even more sense for all of them to be heard.

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