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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 1 April, 2003, 02:22 GMT 03:22 UK
China allows limited anti-war protests
The BBC's Francis Markus
By Francis Markus
BBC Shanghai correspondent

Although the war in Iraq is being extensively covered by China's tightly controlled state media, their treatment of the first, miniscule, anti-war protests the country has been much more muted.

Anti-war protesters in Beijing
Police tried to prevent an anti-war banner being unfurled.

China Central Television has been keeping up a flood of comprehensive war reporting, underpinned by a regular pack of military and diplomatic experts and some newspapers have dramatically boosted circulation with on-the-spot reporting from teams of correspondents around the Middle East.

Yet mass-circulation Chinese newspapers and internet news sites were silent about the three protests which took place in Beijing on Sunday.

It was only the English-language China Daily, read mainly by foreigners, which reported the protests.

The demonstrations themselves, the first to be sanctioned by Chinese authorities, were on a tiny scale, despite evidence that media coverage of the intensifying conflict is stirring up sharper anti-war sentiment.

Protesters detained

In the largest protest, about 200 foreigners marched past the US Embassy in Beijing, while about 150 students were allowed to gather on Beijing University campus to display photographs of wounded Iraqi civilians, hand out pamphlets and raise money for Iraqi victims.

If people go out on the streets, it could turn into some other kind of demonstration.
Professor Pan Guang
It was the third protest by several dozen Chinese, at Beijing's Chaoyang Park which seems to have made the authorities most nervous.

It was cancelled at the last minute, but eventually allowed to go ahead anyway, far from the public eye.

One student who wrapped himself in a banner reading "Give Peace a Chance" outside the park gates had it wrested from him by police, while several protesters were detained, including a man handing out photocopied anti-war statements to reporters.

One reason for the official unease is that the strident anti-American tone of some of the protesters marks a sharp contrast with the mildness of language used about the United States in the state-run media.

The Chinese government may feel vulnerable to criticism over its failure to take a stronger stance against the war.

An anti-war protester is confronted in Beijing
An anti-war protester is confronted
"If our leaders had any military experience, they would have been much firmer with Washington," said one businessman from the eastern city of Jinan, who described himself as a long-standing Communist Party member.

Balancing act

But there is a key factor in Beijing's determination to keep a tight lid on protests.

"If people go out on the streets, it could turn into some other kind of demonstration," says Professor Pan Guang of Shanghai's Academy of Social Sciences.

"For instance in the big cities many old buildings are being demolished and there is conflict between them and the Developers, also some people have lost their jobs; these people will take to the streets and join in demonstrations against the war."

The contrast between huge demonstrations in other countries and the situation here is not lost on those Chinese who feel most strongly against the war - some local onlookers in Beijing said they wished they could have joined in the foreigners' protest.

The government responded to pressure to liberalise international news coverage after criticism of the low-key treatment in Chinese media of the September 11 attacks.

But the public feelings which the war is stirring up present Beijing with a difficult balancing act.


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