BEIJING — In the annals of people who have struggled against Communist Party rule, Wu Dianyuan and Wang Xiuying are unlikely to merit even a footnote
The two women, both in their late 70s, have never spoken out against China’s authoritarian government. Both walk with the help of a cane, and Ms. Wang is blind in one eye. Their grievance, receiving insufficient compensation when their homes were seized for redevelopment, is perhaps the most common complaint among Chinese displaced during the country’s long streak of fast economic growth.
But the Beijing police still sentenced the two women to an extrajudicial term of “re-education through labor” this week for applying to hold a legal protest in a designated area in Beijing, where officials promised that Chinese could hold demonstrations during the Olympic Games.
They became the most recent examples of people punished for submitting applications to protest. A few would-be demonstrators have simply disappeared, at least for the duration of the Games, squelching already diminished hopes that the influx of foreigners and the prestige of holding the Games would push China’s leaders to relax their tight grip on political expression.
“Can you imagine two old ladies in their 70s being re-educated through labor?” asked Li Xuehui, Ms. Wu’s son, who said the police told the two women that their sentence might remain in suspension if they stayed at home and stopped asking for permission to protest.
“I feel very sad and angry because we’re only asking for the basic right of living and it’s been six years, but nobody will do anything to help,” Mr. Li said.
It is unclear why the police have detained people who sought permission to protest. Some political analysts say the police may be refusing to enforce the government’s order, announced last month, to allow protest zones. Chinese lawyers and human rights advocates also suggested a more cynical motivation — that the authorities were using the possibility of legal demonstrations as a ploy to lure restive citizens into declaring their intention to protest, allowing the police to take action against them.
When the International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to Beijing in 2001, ignoring critics who said China should not be rewarded for repression, its president, Jacques Rogge, offered assurances that they would invariably spur China toward greater openness.
But prospects dimmed even before the opening ceremony, when overseas journalists arrived to discover that China’s promise to provide uncensored Internet access was riddled with caveats. The ensuing uproar did persuade the government to unblock some politically sensitive Web sites, but many others, including those that discuss Tibet and the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, remain inaccessible at the Olympic press center.
The announcement that the police had set up special protest zones was initially greeted as a positive if modest step that could allow Chinese a new channel to voice grievances otherwise ignored by party authorities and the state-run media.
“In order to ensure smooth traffic flow, a nice environment and good social order, we will invite these participants to hold their demonstrations in designated places,” Liu Shaowu, the security director for Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee, said at a news conference. He described the creation of three so-called protest zones and suggested that a simple application process would provide Chinese citizens an avenue for free expression, a right that has long been enshrined in China’s Constitution but in reality is rarely granted.
But with four days left before the closing ceremony, the authorities acknowledge that they have yet to allow a single protest. They claim that most of the people who filed applications had their grievances addressed, obviating the need for a public expression of discontent.
Chinese activists say they are not surprised that the promise proved illusory. Li Fangping, a lawyer who has been arrested and beaten for his dogged representation of rights advocates, said there was no way the government would allow protesters to expose some of China’s most vexing problems, among them systemic corruption, environmental degradation and the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of residents for projects related to the Olympics.
“For Chinese petitioners, if their protest applications were approved, it would lead to a chain reaction of others seeking to voice their problems as well,” Mr. Li said.
During the past two decades, China has embraced a market economy and shed some of the more onerous restrictions that dictated where people could live, whom they could marry and whether they could leave the country. But when it comes to political dissent and religious freedom, the government has been unrelenting.
In theory, the Communist Party allows citizens to lobby the central government on matters of local corruption, the illegal seizure of land and extralegal detentions. In reality, those who arrive at Beijing’s petition office are often met at the door by plainclothes officers who stop them from filing their complaints and then bundle them back to their hometowns. Intimidation, beatings and administrative detentions are often enough to prevent them from trying again.
Daniel A. Bell, who teaches political theory at Tsinghua University in Beijing, suggested that Western political leaders and rights advocates were naïve to think that the Olympics would pave the way for the loosening of such restrictions. Although Chinese citizens have come to enjoy greater freedoms over the past two decades, progress has been largely stalled in the years leading up to the Olympics as officials worked to ensure that nothing would interfere with the Games.
In recent months, the pressure has only intensified: scores of rights lawyers and political dissenters have been detained, and even the armies of migrant workers who built the Olympic stadiums have been encouraged to leave town, lest their disheveled appearances detract from the image of a clean, modern nation.
“When you have guests coming over for dinner, you clean up the house and tell the children not to argue,” Mr. Bell said.
While the demands of Mrs. Wu, 79, and Mrs. Wang, 77, the protest applicants, might be seen as harmless, they threatened to expose the systemic problems that bedevil the lives of millions of Chinese. Like many disenchanted citizens, the two women, former neighbors, were seeking to draw attention to a government-backed real estate deal that promised to give them apartments in the new development that replaced their homes not far from Tiananmen Square. Six years later, they are living in ramshackle apartments on the outskirts of the city, and their demands for compensation have gone unanswered.
On Monday, when they returned to the police station to follow up on their protest applications, the women were told they had been sentenced to one year at a labor camp for “disturbing public order.” For the moment, the women have been allowed to return to their homes, but they have been warned that they could be sent to a detention center at any moment, relatives said.
Officials say that they received 77 protest applications but that nearly all of them were dropped after the complaints were “properly addressed by relevant authorities or departments through consultations.”
At a news conference on Wednesday, Wang Wei, the vice president of Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee, was asked about the lack of protests. He said it showed the system was working. “I’m glad to hear that over 70 protest issues have been solved through consultation, dialogue,” he said. “This is a part of Chinese culture.”
But human rights advocates say that instead of pointing the way toward a more open society, the Olympics have put China’s political controls on display.
“Given this moment when the international spotlight is shining on China, when so much of the international media are in Beijing, it’s unfathomable why the authorities are intensifying social control,” said Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China. “The truth is they’re sending a clear and disturbing message, one they’re not even trying to hide, which is we’re not even interested in hearing dissenting voices.”