BEIJING Shortly before the Olympics, the Chinese government announced the creation of special "protest zones" around Beijing, where people could legally express themselves and China could showcase its commitment to free speech.
Manuela Parrino is a 40-year-old Italian who has lived in Beijing for the last 4 1/2 years with her husband, an Italian television correspondent, and their son, Jacopo. "I was kind of fed up with all the visiting journalists talking negatively about China. I was at the press conference where they announced the new protest areas, and I thought, 'OK, let's give this a try."'
According to the official announcement, protesters could apply to appear in any of three Beijing parks, which had been designated as protest zones. Parrino chose Ritan Park, a favorite of kite-fliers and early morning exercisers, which is closest to the family's apartment.
"They said anybody can protest, and, because I didn't want to involve anyone else, I said I'll do a protest with my son, who is 4. We'll protest against pollution," she said.
Her protest plan was straightforward: She and Jacopo would go to the park in matching T-shirts bearing a slogan she thought would work in Chinese and English: "Go Green." She visited her local police station to register the protest a few days in advance, as directed by law. "When I asked for an application form, they said, 'We don't have any. You're the first person to ask for one."'
The police, who were uniformly polite but flummoxed, suggested she join them in an office to talk about it further because her request had attracted a small, inquisitive crowd. Parrino spent the next three hours there while police officers made phone calls and offered her tea, and mentioned, with polite emphasis, how much Beijing's environment has improved.
Finally, they suggested she visit the Beijing Municipal Environment Protection Bureau for more information before going ahead with her protest.
The next day, she returned to the police station, where she was met by a fancy official black car with a driver. At the environment bureau she was greeted by a team of senior officials who embarked on a detailed presentation about China's environmental policies and its investment in pollution control.
"At 4:30, after three hours, I said, 'This is all great. I appreciate what you are doing. But I have an aiyi who needs to leave at 5 p.m.,"' said Parrino, speaking in English during the interview and using the Chinese term for a nanny. The experts implored her to stay, and before long, a more senior official arrived to add his insights.
"At one point, I said, 'Everyone has been very nice to me for the last two days. Would it be the same if I was a Chinese citizen?' They said, 'Chinese people don't like to protest. They like to go to institutions and collaborate to find solutions."'
Indeed, Beijing's protest zones have proved remarkably lacking in protests. So far, 77 protest applications have been filed, according to the state news service. Most were over labor and health-care disputes or problems with social services. But, of those, 74 were voluntarily withdrawn after their problems "were properly addressed by relevant authorities." Official efforts to dissuade Parrino, however, were unsuccessful.
"The next day I went back to the police station to get the application," she said. The form was detailed and asked, among other things, what she would be wearing and where the protest would commence. Police followed up with additional questions. " 'Will you be shouting?' I said no. They said, 'Will you be holding your son's hand the whole time?' I said, 'I don't know, he is young,"' she said. "They said, 'Will you be walking the whole time or standing?' And I said, 'Maybe I would find a place near some stairs so I could sit down if I get tired."'
After three hours of further discussion, Parrino was advised to return on Monday to receive the final instructions regarding her application. She returned, as planned. But there was a problem.
"They said, 'It is not that we won't approve the application. But your son is too young to protest.'" Moreover, they added, protests are required to have a minimum of three people. "I said, 'We met for nine hours and you never told me this, and, besides, I studied the new protest law, and it's not in there.' They said 'I'm sorry, but that's what our superiors told us.'"
Parrino had hit a dead end.
She would later be chalked up as one of the three protest applications not voluntarily withdrawn, as reported by the state news service. All three were rejected.
Moreover, applicants could face harsher consequences. Last week, New York-based Human Rights in China reported that two Beijing residents were ordered to serve a one-year term of "re-education through labor" after they made repeated applications to demonstrate within the protest zones. Wu Dianyuan and Wang Xiuying, who say they were forcibly evicted from their homes in 2001, were judged to be "disturbing the public order," the group said.
For her part, Parrino wrote about her experience for the Italian edition of Vanity Fair magazine, though she worries a bit about whether her attempt to register might bring unwanted trouble.
"One thing is clear," Parrino said. "You cannot protest legally in China. But one thing is not clear: Will they renew my visa in December?"