A report out of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper suggests that as a form of political liberalization, Beijing is considering the establishment of a “petitioner’s district” zone in Beijing, a free speech zone similar to London’s famous Hyde Park. The intent is to manage possible public dissent during the Beijing Olympics. The report (文章, translation below) only mentions an anonymous source in Beijing, so take it with a bucket of salt.
For those not familiar with the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, it is by tradition an area where anyone can speak publicly on any subject at any time, without requiring government permit or approval. Perhaps someone more familiar with British politics can fill us in on details; Wikipedia mentions a previous attempt to block an Iraq War protest?
The article reads:
With 60 days to go until the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, the city of Beijing is continuing to prepare for public security concerns. In addition to recently issued safety procedures for dealing with sudden public incidents, in order to deal with petitioners entering Beijing to protest, the government plans to modify its procedures. Rather than forcibly repatriating petitioners to their registered homes, the “World Park” (in Fengtai district) will instead be sealed off and designated specifically for the use of petitioners. Starting at the beginning of next month, petitioners from throughout the city will be brought into this direct. Reportedly, this is intended to emulate England’s Hyde Park model, in which petitioners can speak, protest, or march. This is intended to highlight the current government’s “people-oriented” approach, while also avoiding potential disruption of the Olympics.
Beijing sources reveal that dealing with unhappy petitioners has long been as a serious challenge for security at the Beijing Olympics. Now, the government has the intent of taking a more open approach towards the petitioners, and will allocate World Park to their special use. During the Olympics, petitioners can speak, protest, and march within the specifically designated areas within the park. Relevant departments will also provide food and water.
Traditionally, the government has primarily had the policy of obstructing and repatriating petitioners who seek to visit Beijing directly. The government has asked Beijing police to take steps in order to prevent large numbers of petitioners from protesting around Tiananmen, Zhongnanhai, the homes of the central government leadership, foreign embassies, as well as Olympic arenas (commonly called the “4+1” areas), with the belief that this negatively affects the country’s appearance. But because of the numerous dialects spoken by petitioners, communication with the Beijing police has been difficult. Therefore, the procedures have placed the responsibility for protests at these “4+1” areas on the original provinces where petitioners are from. These provinces have put their own staff at these “4+1” areas to intercept petitioners, and are responsible for repatriating them home.
One official based in Beijing has expressed that the majority of petitioners have reason for their complaint; it’s precisely because they are unable to get justice in their local areas that they hope to appeal in Beijing directly. But there’s also another type of petitioners called “professional petitioners”. Whenever they’re detained, they demand money before they’re willing to return home. The infamous “petitioner’s village” is also covered with garbage and polluted water.
On MITBBS, many people express interest in the idea as a long-term feature. If it happens, it’d certainly be an interesting evolutionary step in officially sanctioned public political participation for average Chinese.