Giant on the move
First the Olympics and now National Day — China is once more tightening the screws on foreigners living in Beijing, with random identity checks and restrictions on movement, because of worries about security ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party coming to power, on Oct. 1.
Of course for Chinese, the burden is far heavier when it comes to these controls. Foreigners are generally given much more leeway in China, possibly because many police are uncomfortable dealing with the hassle of language and cultural barriers.
But those who live in the alleyways close to Beijing’s main thoroughfare, Changan Avenue, are in the heightened security zone on either side of the military parade that will be the centerpiece of the day’s celebrations.
Instead, foreigners are being given an order that offers a humourous but sharp reminder of how authoritarian China’s government can still sometimes be.
China’s government may be fretting about the vast new potential for leaking information opened up by the internet (see this Xinhua piece on planned revisions to the state secrets law).
But that hasn’t stopped the many bureaucrats who police the nebulous world of Chinese state secrets from wanting to leap headfirst into the online world.
The web is awash with the sites of state secrets bureaux, I discovered after a colleague dug up a report posted on one of them about the commercially and diplomatically sensitive detention of executives from mining giant Rio Tinto.
Security on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is always tight.
But I knew that today it was going to be particularly so when, upon emerging from the subway station, I was faced with three police vans and literally hundreds of security personnel, all on guard against any kind of disturbance ahead of the 20th anniversary of 1989′s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.
Nervously I made my way to one of the square’s entrances, wondering if I would even be allowed to enter.
I put my bag on the X-ray machine, was briefly frisked by police with metal detectors, and cleared to go on my way.
The square was full of tourists, as usual. What was different was the hordes of uniformed police, military police and plainclothes security every few metres.
The plainclothes officers were painfully obvious, shuffling awkwardly in T-shirts and tracksuit bottoms, their crew cut hairstyles and poorly hidden walkie-talkies distinguishing them from ordinary visitors. They were also all carrying the same brand of bottled water.
Everytime I tried talking to someone, a police officer or one of the guards began hovering behind me. Finally I was able to chat with a trinket seller, who, talking in a low voice, complained
that the security was ruining her business.
“June 4 is tomorrow,” she said simply.
At that point one of the crew-cut men marched over and told the lady to stop talking to me.
By this stage. I had had enough and began heading back towards the subway station, passing on my way a foreign television crew. A policeman was telling them in no uncertain terms that they could not film in the square.
I felt lucky that nobody had stopped me. I’m sure the police knew I was there though, and why I had gone.
Photo caption: Chinese security personnel try to stop pictures from being taken as they check the documents of the photographer at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 3, 2009. Chinese security forces blanketed Tiananmen Square on Wednesday ahead of the 20th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause
The normally dull routine of presidential arrivals at Beijing’s airport turned into a mini-scuffle when Hugo Chavez arrived in Beijing for a “working visit” that he sprung on the Chinese about a month ago. The Chinese Foreign Ministry wasn’t eager for Chavez to mar the ceremony with a long-winded speech to the press, even though the Venezuelan embassy had invited journalists to the airport.
As we gathered on bleachers set up about 30 yards from the waiting staircases, the television crews decided to call Chavez over for an inpromptu question-and-answer session. Immediately, the staircases were wheeled away to another spot, more than double the distance from the journalists and certainly well out of earshot.
As the plane slowly approached, the large Chinese and Venezuelan welcoming delegation began walking towards the red carpet, far, far away from us. But then a Venezuelan doubled back and gestered to the press. A break! Journalists sprinted towards the plane, dodging the airport security guards.
A furious argument ensued, as security guards tried to shove reporters back while maintaining some decorum with the embassy representatives. Chavez descended the stairs, grinning amidst the chaos. At the end of the carpet, he turned and began to talk to reporters, while the Chinese guards tried to edge him towards the cars. A few minutes of talking, with no end in sight, made them more impatient. Amid a new round of pushing, Chavez himself got bumped.
The biggest international sporting event Beijing and China hosted prior to the Olympics was the 1990 Asian Games. China dominated the medal count, winning almost twice as many as their nearest rival.
And Pan Pan, the game’s Panda mascot, was everywhere. One of the official sponsors distributed Pan Pan decals to the media showing the official mascot in various XI Asiad sporting poses such as boxing, archery, wrestling, etc. With a little imagination, and a pair of scissors, people would remove Pan Pan’s head and apply the mascot’s sporting themes to their credential photo.
First the Chinese authorities provided foreigners with a list of dos and don’ts for when they visit the games. Now Human Rights Watch has got into the act, providing foreign journalists with its own booklet giving advice on how to report out of China.
The Reporters’ Guide gives useful information on what do if police detain you (don’t hit them), what to do if your reporting rights are not respected (complain) and what to do to prevent anyone snooping on your stories or emails (one suggestion — use gmail and add an ‘s’ at the end of http in the URL).
My abiding memory of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City – just a few months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. — is of removing and putting back on my heavy winter boots several times a day at security checkpoints.