|Chinese authorities stepped up security for the Olympics [EPA]
China's announcement that it would set up three protest areas in the capital during the Olympics for authorised demonstrations, at least in theory, sounded like something of a concession.
In 2004 Athens made similar arrangements, but China traditionally takes a much more wary approach to protests.
However, in practice, the system appears to be little more than an empty gesture. So far there have been no reports of any legal protest in the zones, with those applying uniformly rejected or detained.
Ji Sizun, 55, a self-described grassroots legal activist from Fujian province, appears to be the latest casualty of this system.
He told Al Jazeera on Saturday that he had submitted his protest that day to the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau (PSB).
He said he wanted to demonstrate on behalf of the petitioners who come to Beijing as a last resort to resolve cases of alleged injustice in their home provinces.
|Thousands of policemen are on guard across the Olympic venues [EPA]
The vast majority never get their appeals resolved and are being prevented from petitioning during the Olympics.
"China really wants to show it has concern for human rights," Ji said. "I wanted to come to Beijing and try to protest because it is a good opportunity."
He was told to come back Monday, but by Monday afternoon Ji was unreachable.
His family in Fujian believes he has been detained and will be held until after the Olympics, a source said. They spoke with him briefly on Monday but he only managed to say "I have some problems," before the call was cut off.
The PSB refused to comment when contacted by Al Jazeera.
Ji said he was worried after a fellow would-be protester, Tang Xuecheng, from Hunan Province, had called him on August 5 from the PSB saying he had been detained when handing in his application.
The protest zones are a "masquerade," says Nicholas Bequelin, a Human Rights Watch spokesperson based in Hong Kong. "The police are either turning people down or arresting those who try."
All protest applicants need to apply five days in advance with details of the planned demonstration along with their identification papers.
Protests which are deemed to harm "national interests", will not be allowed.
"Citizens must respect and not harm others’ freedoms and rights and must not harm national, social and collective interests," said Liu Shaowu, the Beijing organising committee's security chief when announcing the protest areas.
|Three parks have been designated official protest zones during the Olympics [EPA]
Even the zones themselves are hard to find. Three parks, far from Olympic venues, have been designated as the official protest areas.
The most central, Ritan Park, near the embassy district, is picture-postcard scenic, set out like an imperial garden with lily ponds, pagodas and rock gardens.
Instead of protests, people are ballroom dancing, practicing tai chi or cuddling with their lover on park benches.
So far, said Olympic volunteers, no protests had been staged in the park.
To Bequelin this is proof that the protest zones nothing but an empty gesture.
"It is absurd to say that no one wants to protest in Beijing at this time [during the Olympics]," he said. "Especially given the extraordinary effort that people make to reach out to journalists in ordinary times."
There was even some confusion over where sanctioned protests would be held.
"The public security organs will find a spot in the park if any demonstration is approved," said an Olympic volunteer working in the park who gave her surname as Xing.
However another volunteer, Jack Zhang, said protesters could rally at the south gate of the park.
"But why on earth would you want protest?" he asked.