Four years ago, amid the pyrotechnics and superlatives in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ji Sizun's aspirations were relatively modest. A 61-year-old self-described legal activist from Fujian province, Ji had little interest in the athletic events, let alone the Chinese government's relentless "One World, One Dream" Olympics propaganda campaign that pitched the games as proof of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's wisdom in guiding the country to world-power status.
Instead, Ji saw the Beijing Olympics as a platform to highlight problems in Chinese governance and society, including the need for greater participation of citizens in political processes and redress for rampant official corruption and abuses of power.
Under normal circumstances, Ji's plan for a successful public protest in Beijing would have been foolhardy, especially during a Chinese government-designated "sensitive" period for a high-profile event such as the Olympics. The Chinese government rarely tolerates public protests; those that do occur are usually quickly dispersed and their participants often detained. China's security agencies, flush with a "stability maintenance" budget that will reach $111 billion this year, are adept at efficiently silencing potential protesters.
Ji knew all this. But he also knew that the Chinese government had promised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that it would suspend its repressive reflexes and observe international standards of free expression and association during the games. After all, Liu Shaowu, the security director for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) had on July 23, 2008, publicly vowed that "people or protesters who want to express their personal opinions can go to do so" in line with "common practice in other countries." The BOCOG even established three official protest zones in Beijing where groups and individuals would be free to peacefully demonstrate without fear of official reprisals. The Washington Post reported that in an August 2008 interview, Ji said that "he believed the offer was sincere and represented the beginning of a new era for human rights in China."
So Ji -- along with dozens of other brave Chinese souls who took Liu at his word -- applied for a permit to demonstrate. On August 8, 2008, the day of the opening ceremony, he entered a police station in Beijing's Xicheng district to file his application. But as a veteran activist, Ji took precautions. So before returning three days later, he contacted several foreign correspondents and asked them to wait outside the station while he entered to pick up his permit.
About 90 minutes after Ji entered the police station, those reporters watched aghast as several men who appeared to be plainclothes policemen escorted him out of the building and put him in a dark, unmarked Buick. As the car sped off, Ji managed to make a short call to his family to notify them he had "problems." That was the last time anyone heard from him for five months. On Jan. 7, 2009, Ji's lawyer announced that a Fujian court had convicted his client on dubious forgery charges and had sentenced him to a three-year prison term.