China going to absurd lengths to hide activists

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BEIJING --- For their high-security Beijing Olympics, Chinese police have their bomb detectors and metal detectors. They could do with an absurdity detector, too.

Take the example of blacklisted author Yu Jie. Because the games are in town, police are keeping him under close watch at his Beijing home 24/7, with plainclothes officers stationed outside in three rotating shifts. Yu says his only way out of the gated middle-class community -- where he and his wife are raising their 4-month-old boy, Justin -- is under escort in a police car.

So much for the Olympic spirit. The Summer Games aren't much fun for such activists, government critics and outspoken freethinkers, who aren't welcome at the party, are under watch or have been driven out of town.

"I was uncomfortable and I felt unsafe," outspoken AIDS activist Wan Yanhai told me, explaining why he has left Beijing for the duration. "I didn't want to see police follow me every day."

Even in China, there's no legal grounds for such harassment.

In the case of Yu, who met President Bush at the White House in 2006, the police seem aware they are on shaky legal ground. He says they told him he should look at their surveillance as a "service," not as a constraint.

Over the years, Yu has learned it's sometimes best not to resist. These guys can get nasty. They have previously threatened to kill him and make it look like an accident, he said.

Yu said he hasn't been authorized to publish any of his writings in China since 2004. He suspects that's because he was detained by police for one night that year with two other government critics. They were preparing a study about human rights in China and seemingly alerted police monitors by discussing their plans by e-mail.

Yu is a Christian and prays weekly in an unregistered -- and thus technically illegal -- congregation. Yet the police still took him across town Sunday for worship. Yu said the two officers waited outside for 31/2 hours until he was done, then escorted him home, paying the cab fare both ways. A police escort to an unauthorized gathering: absurd, no?

The real irony is that Yu is the most unlikely of threats to the Olympics: he's totally disinterested in them, is turned off by doping and the commercialization of sports, is convinced the International Olympic Committee is corrupt, and lives way out on Beijing's eastern outskirts where any protest would almost certainly go unnoticed. Yu and other activists I spoke to this past week said it was never their intention to make trouble during the games.

Perhaps the smarter thing for the communist government would have been to leave people like Yu alone. It certainly would have given global critics and the thousands of foreign journalists in town less to talk about.

Despite the hype from Chinese authorities and the IOC that the games will help make for a more progressive China, the harassment of activists campaigning for better human rights and peaceful political change shows there's still a long way to go.


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