Tank Man is Everyman
July 11, 2008 9:36 AM   Subscribe

As an American, can I hand out flyers detailing the Tiananmen Square Massacre during the Beijing Olympics?
posted by plexi to Law & Government (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Depends, would you like to be detained?
posted by sanka at 9:42 AM on July 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

You'd likely get deported and would never be allowed back in the country. You might talk to a lawyer about this.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:44 AM on July 11, 2008

What do you mean by "can"?

Specifically do you want to know:

- Is it legal?
- What might happen to you if the police see you doing such a thing?
- Does your American citizenship impact the legality of what you want to do?
- Does your American citizenship impact what might happen to you if you do such a thing?
- How might people react to this action?

Just my 2 cents... at the Beijing Olympics you're going to encounter a lot of other foreigners and certainly they'll all already be aware of it. I just don't see the point.
posted by k8t at 9:46 AM on July 11, 2008

Probably not for very long.

I imagine the US government would take about as dim a view of this as would the Chinese. And there is the matter of deportation/barring from the country, as Blazecock mentions. This happened to an acquaintance of mine some years ago, for actions not entirely dissimilar to what you're thinking of doing. Seems rather a high risk for doing something that, quite frankly, seems rather arrogant and non-productive. Grand gestures are not always the way to go.
posted by sinfony at 9:51 AM on July 11, 2008

I'm assuming you plan on being in China when you do this?
If not, and you plan on distributing flyers elsewhere, make sure you don't include the Olympic rings (or the Olympic name, possibly) on them; the Olympics trademark police will be on you faster than China.
posted by inigo2 at 9:52 AM on July 11, 2008

Inside the PRC, this information is censored. So, your question really is, "As a guest in another country, can I disobey their rules, going specifically counter to the wishes of their government?" More or less, this has consequences regardless of where you travel.
posted by Houstonian at 9:53 AM on July 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Bad Idea.

You will be breaking the law in China, and can be treated as a criminal, regardless of your citizenship. To quote the US State Department:

"The rights an American enjoys in this country do not travel abroad. Each country is sovereign and its laws apply to everyone who enters regardless of nationality. The U.S. government cannot get Americans released from foreign jails. However, a U.S. consul will insist on prompt access to an arrested American, provide a list of attorneys, and provide information on the host country’s legal system, offer to contact the arrested American’s family or friends, visit on a regular basis, protest mistreatment, monitor jail conditions, provide dietary supplements, if needed, and keep the State Department informed."

This general approach holds true for all countries, so if you're a Canadian, expect your gov't to behave more or less exactly as outlined above.

Also note that Beijing is going to be utterly swamped with security. You'll probably be able to hand out less than a dozen flyers before being dragged off, placed in detention, and ejected from the country.
posted by aramaic at 9:56 AM on July 11, 2008

This is a joke, right?

Deportation is probably the best case scenario. When you're on Chinese soil, you are subject to Chinese law, no matter your nationality.

This, of course assumes that you can get the fliers into the country, which would imply getting the past a customs inspector... because the chances of getting someone to print that sort of material in-country, for a stranger, without ratting you out, are less than zero.
posted by toxic at 9:59 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

My guess is if you plan on doing this in Beijing you wouldn't be posting questions on AskMeFi (or anywhere else) for a good long time. You might of course get some publicity here, but it would probably be along the lines of "American Citizen arrested at Olympic Games and charged with subversive political activities. The People's Republic prosecutor predicts a long prison sentence".

Bad. Idea.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 10:11 AM on July 11, 2008

Your body language and handful of flyers would instantly alert security of your intentions and you'd pass out maybe 3 or 4 to other Americans before you get arrested. What happens after that is unknown but I would imagine the process involves some time in a Chinese jail waiting, lawyers, and maybe some time served. At the end of your sentence you will most likely be deported.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:16 AM on July 11, 2008

For this to have any effect, you would need to assume that the average Chinese citizen walking by would even take your flyer. Would you, if you were a citizen in China? Especially one lucky enough to be going to the Olympics?
posted by smackfu at 10:21 AM on July 11, 2008

The best you can hope for, as an American, is that you will eventually be deported, rather than disappearing into a Chinese jail for years. Unless you pre-plan for tremendous at-home visibility, don't count on American authorities to do anything to expedite your deportation.
posted by Good Brain at 10:22 AM on July 11, 2008

Also, even if you think you would get some kind of preferential treatment as a result of being an American, remember that this won't apply to anyone Chinese who has any even fleeting involvement — or even apparent involvement in the hasty judgment of a paranoid security person — with your scheme. It wouldn't be the first time that uninformed democracy protestors from overseas have arguably caused more trouble for those they're supporting than if they'd never tried.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:24 AM on July 11, 2008

After more thought: If you feel very strongly about this, you could take the money and time that you would have spent at the Olympics, and donate it to an organization that works toward changing human rights and other violations in China.

Yes, it hurts to part with the money and time, but less so than breaking their laws, and your efforts are more likely to make the changes you (as an American) feel is important for them to make in their country.
posted by Houstonian at 10:29 AM on July 11, 2008

There are plenty of other people that the Chinese government will make "examples" of during the Olympics. Don't be one of them. You won't be making a difference.
posted by azpenguin at 10:37 AM on July 11, 2008

I'm pretty sure that I read that China is rolling back it's Great Firewall just for the Olympics so that foreigners won't experience first hand what it's like to live under such a regime. During such a time it is conceivable that more Chinese will have access to information about Tiananmen.

And Tank-Man is possibly one of the most inspiring human beings ever to walk the earth.
posted by wfrgms at 10:45 AM on July 11, 2008

You absolutely can hand out those fliers.

...and then all of the things mentioned above (and more) can, and probably will, happen to you.

This is a terrifically stupid idea.
posted by toomuchpete at 10:48 AM on July 11, 2008

Ask yourself how you would feel if Chinese people came here to point out how our government cared for its own people in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. We're trying to get the 2016 Olympics, and believe me, our country has plenty of dirty laundry. Iraq comes to mind...

I'm not saying those events are the same, nor am I saying the Chinese have done enough to right their human rights wrongs - but last time I checked, neither have we. Guantanamo Bay... The government tapping our phones without warrants.

The view sure is nice when living in a glass house, eh?

If you want to make a positive change, why not start in your own back yard? I guarantee that with an equal amount of effort, you can accomplish more.
posted by 2oh1 at 11:14 AM on July 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is a really bad idea. You pick the best time to do this, but worst time to do this in China. China is already on full alert 30 days counting down to the Olympics. I read from news that all vehicles stop for security check when entering the city, bags go through security check in subways... I assume you plan on doing this in a crowded area, and the plainclothes are most likely right next to you. I'm afraid the impact you want to make will be very minimal. You will end up being deported right away for sure.
posted by dy at 11:15 AM on July 11, 2008

This is a bad idea, not just because of what might happen to you.

It's easy to be inspired by the courage of Tank Man, but I don't think he got up that morning looking for a fight and I don't think wanted to be a martyr. He did what he had to do in a horrible situation and he did it to save lives. Don't go creating a situation so you can feel like a hero.

No, civil rights aren't great in China. Yes, horrible injustices still occur. But by all accounts China is getting better little by little. A Chinese businessman quoted in a recent article on China said the general feeling is, "Shhh, politics is sleeping, don’t wake it up."

China is a juggernaut, and you can't change the direction of a juggernaut overnight, and you certainly can't change it with a few fliers. As others have said, if you want to be more effective donate your time and money to Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, or charities who specifically try to improve conditions in China.
posted by sharkfu at 11:17 AM on July 11, 2008

Best answer: A very important part of this equation that has been forgotten here is the safety of the people who are taking the flyers you hand out. Regardless of how you feel about your own safety and security, you should know that for people to be caught with this type of literature is very dangerous. I don't think it would be responsible of you to do so.

I work for a large human rights organization that is very active around this issue, and we are not encouraging people who are going to be in Beijing to hand out any kind of literature. I was recently watching some documentaries with a group, and in one there was a western journalist who talks about her experience interviewing people in China for a human rights documentary. She managed to convince this one fellow to take part anonymously, but he was followed to the interview, dragged out and never heard from again. It was very poignant to hear how guilty she felt for having possibly gotten this man killed.

To give you an idea of what kinds of sentences people are looking at with this kind of thing:
Shi Tao is a journalist who was sent a briefing by the Chinese government on how to cover the upcoming anniversary of Tiananmen Square. He posted the brief on his public blog, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with the assistance of Yahoo!, who provided his email details to the Chinese government. He is still in prison today.
posted by vodkaboots at 11:21 AM on July 11, 2008 [11 favorites]

Seconding vodkaboots. Leaving aside what might happen to you if you hand out flyers (and swift deportation is the very best scenario), you will absolutely be putting anyone who takes a flyer at serious risk. You might also be putting at risk anyone who could tangentially be connected to your entire trip -- the customs agent at the airport, any translator or driver you might have employed, even locals you might have befriended along the way, etc.

In other words, you would be jeopardizing some of the very people whose rights and living conditions you are ostensibly concerned about.
posted by scody at 11:44 AM on July 11, 2008

You have to be ready to accept the consequences of civil disobedience.

The most obvious consequence has already been detailed above by previous posters. Another consequence is that you'll probably just end up with a bunch of Chinese people holding your flyers and thinking that you are stupid for swallowing American propaganda about what happened at Tian'anmen, or that you're really just uninformed about the actual historical dynamics of the complicated episode. The other side of the story has a lot of credibility here.
posted by msittig at 11:54 AM on July 11, 2008

To be frank, its completely fucking stupid.

There are plainclothes all over Tian Aan Men Square (assuming thats where you want to do this) and you will not get more then 5 out before a van pulls up and takes you to a police station where you will be interrogated for 10 or 15 hours before being deported. Also anyone who takes one of your fliers is liable to get in trouble, especially if they are Chinese nationals.

So, basically, this is hubris and its stupid at that.
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:21 PM on July 11, 2008

Do you have a death wish? Then yes.
posted by kldickson at 12:30 PM on July 11, 2008

Good luck getting a visa to go in the first place. It's pretty tight getting in right now. Once you get in, you'd probably hand out about 3 flyers before you're escorted onto a van and driven to the airport for your return trip. I doubt they'll do anything to a foreign citizen during the media frenzy of the Olympics. In fact the government there knows they can't do much then, which is why they're limiting visas. But seriously, don't do this.
posted by reformedjerk at 1:04 PM on July 11, 2008

Well members of the US government couldn't stop you, but I heard they don't have a lot of those in China.
posted by whoaali at 1:50 PM on July 11, 2008

I just meant that at the 2016 games (if we get them, which I'm hoping we will), would we really want to see foreigners handing out fliers about all of the awful things our nation has done?

That is not a valid comparison. Information is easily available and accessible here - not so in China.

plexi, it's worth a look at the State Dept's travel information about China. In their criminal penalties section:
"Several Americans have been detained and expelled for passing out non-authorized Christian literature. Sentences for distributing this material may range from three to five years imprisonment, if convicted."
It's up to you if you think it's worth it.
posted by lullaby at 2:03 PM on July 11, 2008

I'm on your side, but unless the handing out of flyers is only a way to get arrested, and the larger goal is to use your incarceration to drum up publicity via an advocacy organization working on your behalf back home, it's probably not going to have the impact you desire.

Otherwise, you'd better start training now, so you'll be able to dodge the flame-thrower-operating, machine-gun-wielding, Segway-riding security forces. Because they're getting ready too.
posted by roombythelake at 2:12 PM on July 11, 2008

I always laugh when I see Hollywood movies detailing how the "simple actions of one American saved an entire country" - you know, Bruce Willis saves an entire African country because he has "heart" and that sort of thing. It's self-serving propaganda whose real-life equivalent is far more likely - as pointed out above - to put other people in severe danger. So you can be self-righteous.

If you want a great cocktail party story, there are better ways to go about it. I question how anyone with such a disturbing lack of common sense would help anyone anyhow.

But keep dreaming: America, fuck yeah!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:34 PM on July 11, 2008

Stupid. I have had friends who lived in china for some time including military attache MI work. My friends, including one trained to detect electronic eavesdropping, say that everything is bugged. Everything.

You are unlikely to suceed and the risks are high.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:07 PM on July 11, 2008

vodka's on the money. have you seen this Frontline?

The entire episode is fascinating (including the story of HOW the photo got out of the country). I'd also call your attention to section 6, which shows just how excellent China's been at tamping down the information you'd try to disseminate in your flier. They've seen you coming a ways off.

Be safe. Talk, sure, but gods beneath us, be reasonable.
posted by Busithoth at 3:51 PM on July 11, 2008

It sounds like a lot of dangerous grand standing to me. Surely you don't think that people attending the Olympic games haven't heard of Tiananmen? I'm sure you can contact myriad human rights groups and find a more effective and far less dangerous way to help the Chinese people.

I think you can safely bet that there is going to be ZERO tolerance for any type of civil disobedience during the games, and judging by the tenor of the torch relay, they are putting a lot of energy into making sure that this is a PURELY "positive experience" for everyone involved. That means if you get caught, you might just end up detained until the end of the Olympics - but unless you are there with a large, politically visible group, you might disappear for a very long time.

So, yes - you can - but you really shouldn't.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 5:11 PM on July 11, 2008

Surely you don't think that people attending the Olympic games haven't heard of Tiananmen?

This was my question. Why Tiananmen?
posted by GardenGal at 10:24 PM on July 11, 2008

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