SHIJIAZHUANG, China From the desktop computer at the foot of his bed, Zhang Heng dares to complain about the Beijing Olympics.
The 24-year-old blogger tells of having to sign a "civilized behavior pledge" and verify to a neighborhood committee that he is a legal resident of his building. At the Web site company where he works, everyone had to show a clean police record because the Olympic torch route passed by the office last week.
While many Chinese are excited about the Olympics, which begin Friday, the Games have also touched off a fair amount of grumbling. Most of it is quiet, though, because the government is quick to clamp down on protest.
"I think ordinary people have no opportunity to see the Games, and I find it hard to accept that everyone around the country has to adjust their lives and work for it, just because this is about the country's image," Zhang said at his home in Shijiazhuang, a 3 1/2-hour drive from Beijing.
To top it off, he has to drag himself out of bed early on weekends to buy pancakes at the neighborhood stall; authorities have ordered it shut by 8:30 a.m. through the Olympics because they consider it unsightly.
His town is hosting no Olympic sports events and doesn't expect any tourist influx. But it's part of Hebei, the province which surrounds Beijing, and authorities clearly are taking no chances.
That Zhang can complain on his blog is one sign of freer speech in China. But exactly what is permitted remains fuzzy. The Olympics the pride of the country is an area where critics need to tread carefully.
A blog that took on the Games directly "Beijing Olympics: I Do Not Support It" was shut last year after just six days.
"I didn't think I had done anything wrong," the site's creator, Guan Jun, wrote on another blog. "This is a warning to my friends who are trying to oppose the Beijing Olympics: Be careful."
Contacted recently, Guan declined further comment, saying the topic was "too sensitive."
In 2004, Ye Guozhu, whose Beijing home and restaurant were torn down to make way for an Olympic facility, was jailed for four years for trying to organize a protest. He was due to be released on July 26 but was detained again, apparently to prevent him from disrupting the Olympics, a human rights group said.
Lately the government has announced it will allow protests during the Olympics, but only at three designated areas several miles from the events.
Foreign and local protesters who want to speak out against the Beijing Olympics are also required to apply five days in advance and not harm "national interests," the security chief for the Olympic organizing committee said in a statement posted on the official Olympics news Web site Saturday.
"Assembling to march and protest is a citizen's right. But it must be stressed that when exercising this right, citizens must respect and not harm others' freedoms and rights and must not harm national, social and collective interests," Liu Shaowu, security chief for the Beijing Organizing Committee, said in the statement.
The Beijing Public Security Bureau did not respond to faxed requests for comment on several issues, including whether citizens were allowed to criticize the Olympics.
"In China, there's no room for protests or demonstrations," said Keen Kang, a 34-year-old Beijing man who complains the Games are raising the cost of living. "If there were freedom, there would definitely be people protesting."
Keen is the "English" name he has chosen. He wouldn't be identified by his real first name, fearing retribution.
A rare public critic is Ai Weiwei, an avant-garde artist who was a consultant for the Bird's Nest, the main Olympic stadium. He has disassociated himself from the design, calling it a "fake smile" to hide China's social and political problems.
The long-bearded Ai is part of a small elite that can speak out freely, protected by being internationally famous and the son of a beloved writer who was persecuted during communist leader Mao Zedong's 27-year rule.
The most colorful and pointed complaints are heard on the streets.
Beijingers are known for their direct manner and love of talk, and the Olympic grief is plentiful restrictions on car and truck use, workers made to take unpaid leave to ease congestion during the two weeks of Games, street vendors and businesses forced to close without compensation.
"Compensation? What compensation!" laughed a 53-year-old ice cream vendor in central Beijing, who gave only his surname, Wu. City inspectors have ordered his small freezer cart off the streets during the Olympics.
"At least half the people I know can't wait for the Games to be over. It's a glorious event for the country, but ordinary people are the unlucky ones," he said.
Zhang Shumao, 48, complained of corrupt officials and lavish spending on Olympics venues while he and his wife are struggling with rising living costs.
"I can barely feed myself, so what do I care," he said, when asked if his name could be published. Laid off by an auto parts company eight years ago, he earns what money he can by repairing bicycles.
Wang Sixin, a law professor at Communication University of China, knows that in the West people are free to protest against having Olympics in their cities.
"We need to learn from the West ... not only allowing freedom of speech but also allowing people to gather and express their political views," he said. "Of course, this will take time."
On the Net (Chinese only):
Zhang Heng blog: www.lipuman.com
Guan Jun blog: www.sichina.com/blog/User0/254/
Keen Kang blog: blog.sina.com.cn/sos