BEIJING — As he sat munching Kentucky Fried Chicken with his captors at a Beijing police station last week, the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney couldn't help thinking that he was going to be used as a star in an upcoming Chinese propaganda film.
Along with two other Americans, Mahoney had been dragged from Tiananmen Square just a couple of hours earlier, as they attempted to unfurl a "Jesus Christ Is King" banner and protest human rights abuses in China, including forced abortions. Such public expressions of belief are illegal in this country.
Now Mahoney and the others were being subjected to a classic good cop-bad cop interrogation routine, in this case augmented with official Chinese photographers. With the good cop in charge, out came the cameras, recording everything. When the bad cop came in, no shutters clicked.
"I was thinking, 'Oh my goodness. I can see it now. The Chinese, accused of harsh and brutal tactics against human rights protesters, show that they serve KFC and tea to their prisoners. They wanted to document our treatment,' " Mahoney said in a telephone interview after he returned to Washington this week, the Chinese visa in his passport stamped with red ink: Expelled, Aug. 7, 2008.
Before the Olympic Games opened, Chinese leaders publicly exhorted their 100,000-plus security team in Beijing to guard against public demonstrations that could mar China's international image.
The focus of their strategy for handling protests by foreigners, emerging now after about a half-dozen small-scale incidents, seems to be to limit the force used to subdue participants — especially in an age of cellphone cameras and YouTube — while documenting any gentle treatment in custody. Those detained, some of them seasoned religious and political activists who expect arrest, said another police goal is to get them to admit they broke a Chinese law against disturbing public order.
The Beijing Public Security Bureau information office has declined to comment on specific cases, except to say its officers take action when anyone, including foreigners, is "conducting activities against Chinese law."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a regular press briefing on Wednesday that, "just as in other countries, assemblies, processions and demonstrations must be held according to relevant legal regulations and procedures, and shall not be carried out without approval from relevant authorities."
The Olympics have long been seen by protesters as an opportunity to air their grievances against host countries. Many host countries, in turn, have tried to contain demonstrations by setting aside special protest zones, as China has done. But in Beijing, there have been no reports of anyone using the so-called "protest pens," and some Chinese who have tried to obtain permits to do so have been detained.
Unwilling to detain foreign protesters for long periods, the Chinese have decided instead to hustle them out of the country. Their strategy is not without precedent. During the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norwegian authorities deported 12 Americans who were apparently planning an antiabortion protest. During the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, two American sprinters were expelled after bowing their heads and saluting in a nod to black power on the medal stand. So far in Beijing, no athlete has attempted a political statement on the stand.
But Beijing has shown exceptional concern about its image, according to those deported so far.
"They had an extreme commitment to order and appearance," said Mahoney, a veteran activist who directs the anti-abortion Christian Defense Coalition.
As he and fellow activists Michael McMonagle and Brandi Swindell were being forced to board an airplane bound for Los Angeles, they were escorted by five officers in civilian clothes.
"From the outside it looked like 'la-di-da, just some Americans with their Chinese friends,' " Mahoney said. But one of the officers had warned him as they entered the airport, "Don't make noise. Don't link arms."
The officers were the same ones who had threatened Mahoney and the others with jail a few hours earlier in the interrogation room. "You must leave the country now!" a male officer had barked after replacing a female officer who had been calmly taking the detainees' statements. "Leave now! You have to pay to go back!"
Mahoney said the sudden anger was like one end of a see-saw they had been on for about seven hours of interrogation, as officers were alternately sympathetic, then harsh. Their mobile phones had been seized, and their requests to call the U.S. Embassy had been denied.
After 45 minutes of arguing about who would pay for tickets on the next flight out of Beijing, Mahoney stood firm and said the three would not pay for their deportation. A senior officer then abruptly ordered them loaded into a police van. "You are going to jail," he told them.
After they were put into the van, "no one said anything for about five minutes," Mahoney said. "We were trying to stay brave. We knew this fear was a drop in the bucket compared to what so many dissidents in China go through. We had the sense of things being completely out of our control."
After more than an hour of driving, including a stop at their hotel, where police searched their room and allowed them to take a few pieces of clothing in plastic bags, the three saw road signs indicating the van was headed to the airport.