World Watches China's Shifting Faces

China juggles its need for absolute control with improving its global image.

January 8, 2009, 1:09 AM

BEIJING, China, June 4, 2008 — -- An American friend of mine in Beijing was recently told by her landlord that she had one week to move out.

Unbeknownst to her, her building is not permitted to rent out apartments to foreigners, and authorities were threatening to penalize her landlord unless he evicted her, her husband and their adorable little dog. Even though she had a signed one-year lease, she had no choice but to pack up, move out and find a new apartment within seven days.

While I was covering the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, I got a call from my landlord to remind me that, as a foreigner, I had to register at the local police department every time I leave and enter the country. The authorities are going building-to-building, making sure all foreigners are vetted and accounted for.

Two months before the Olympics, China is in full control mode, trying to ensure stability and security at the Games, its all-important debut on the world stage.

But for us expatriates living in China, it's becoming a royal pain.

The other day, I tried to order from my usual sandwich delivery shop, but was told delivery people are no longer allowed inside the gates of the diplomatic compound where our office is located, which means my lazy American self had to get up and meet the delivery man three blocks away. What's the point of delivery if you have to meet halfway?

Then yesterday, the taxi I was riding was stopped at the gate and I had to walk the rest of the way to the office — my American passport is no longer a free pass into the compound.

Later in the day, our bureau van, even with a parking permit, was stopped from entering.

The final insult was when, a few hours later, a Chinese member of staff was prohibited from entering. She has been coming to tidy our office five days a week for the last year, and yet suddenly, and without warning, her ID card was no longer worth anything.

The words "China" and "crackdown" are frequently used together. Whether it is democracy protesters, or religious groups, or Tibetan monks or journalists, the Chinese authorities are professionals at orchestrating massive and rapid measures to exert control.

What we are currently witnessing is the enforcement of rules and regulations that have largely been ignored until now, this crucial time before the Olympics. They were ignored because they were impractical, unfair and cumbersome to enforce.

Take, for example, the rule that Chinese citizens are not allowed in the diplomatic compounds without being hassled, despite the fact that many Chinese work and live in the compound.

The more open and reasonable China I had started to appreciate in my eight months of living here is, sadly, no more, and I suspect as the Games near, life for foreigners and Beijingers alike will become even more frustrating.

Security threats are a real concern at every Olympics, and I support any measures to ensure a safe Olympics, but does keeping our bureau housekeeper from entering her place of work do any good?

I was heartened to see the amount of charity and volunteerism that sprang up out of the ruins of the Sichuan earthquake. It was unprecedented and it made me realize that China is not just the rising economic behemoth that has the developed world shaking in its boots.

China has a soul, one that cries and cares and gives just like any nation faced with a natural catastrophe.

Some of the memorials for victims became patriotic rallies, which seemed a bit strange at first, but actually not that different from the outpouring of American nationalism that followed the 9/11 attacks. Police allowed these rallies to occur, even though public protest is banned in China without a proper permit which is hardly ever given.

Police also allowed foreign journalists relatively free access to explore the quake-ravaged areas. Our crew was stopped from filming on three occasions — at two shelters, and in front of a collapsed high school where monks were praying. A man with the Public Security Bureau told us it was illegal in China for foreign news crews to film religious ceremonies, a law I had never heard of. But that's a pretty good track record of access for journalists in China.

Even the Chinese media was allowed relatively free rein to cover the tragedy, including the collapse of thousands of schools in the quake zone. These are encouraging signs of a China that is allowing the emergence of a more robust press and civil society, which of course, go in hand in hand.

But three weeks later, I'm reminded that while China's economy continues to grow unimpeded, it is still only developing in fits and starts in other areas.

This week, Olympic organizers distributed a pamphlet to Chinese volunteers of the Paralympics that terribly offended members of the physically disabled community. The pamphlet was intended to help volunteers relate better to Paralympic participants, but it made the odd assumption that disabled athletes are "isolated, unsocial and introspective," and implied they should somehow be treated with kid gloves.

This example illustrates two things: one, that the Chinese are genuinely trying to be sensitive to people with disabilities, and two, that they have erroneous and unfounded stereotypes that completely undermine their best intentions.

Despite the difficulties authorities have put many of us foreign journalists through, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the government. It has to juggle so much.

China is the first developing country to host a Summer Olympics but it is being judged as if it is a developed nation. The government must ensure a safe and secure event, and so it is clamping down in the only way it knows how, but it will continue to face unabashed criticism for its Orwellian ways. China needs its state-controlled media to stoke feelings of nationalism to keep the country together, but it opens up a Pandora's box of liberated speech that may quickly turn critical of the government when it does.

China has a Catch-22 around every corner, and the world is watching to see where it turns next.

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