Friday, September 12, 2008

Behind the Glitz

My friend Craig Watts, a native of the grand canyon country of Utah but a quasi "permanent resident" of Beijing nowadays, wrote an insightful and personal piece about the past Olympics on his blog. It corroborates with what friends and family in China told me during the Games: Behind the glitz, as usual, lay the unsightly side. Thank Craig for letting me reprint it here.

"I escaped Beijing for the Olympics, returning just hours before the closing ceremony started, and since returning have been part of interesting conversations with Chinese friends about how they saw the whole thing.

Friends here think the government really took control of Beijing in a heavy-handed way, shipping out all the construction workers and prostitutes, and shipping in the military. Friends here suggest as many as 100,000 soldiers were shipped in to keep the peace, mostly disguised as "volunteers" or in plain clothes, so as not to catch the attention of the overseas press and guests. These were the guys filling the seats at the events. They not only could be trusted not to launch some protest about Tibet, but could also be counted on to step in if others in the audience started to get out of line. Friends said these military observers were even controlling the crowds in some cases, letting them know the appropriate times to cheer like in a recorded game show.

According to friends (and I think this came out a bit in the Western press), a bit of a scuffle broke out at the Bird's Nest after the local fans spent 3 days in line trying to buy Olympics tickets only to be told that all tickets were sold out just 3 hours after opening the ticket window. The police and military were brought in to get the situation under control, and to harass a Hong Kong reporter. Friends here say that the Hong Kong reporters report the real news, and are a threat because they are the only ones close enough to Chinese to know what's really going on here.

During the Olympics period it wasn't even OK to say things critical about how the games were being put on. I heard that a woman in the Beijing suburbs got stuck in a huge gas line at a filling station and ranted a bit about the Beijing Olympics as part of the cause, and then was escorted away by two plainsclothes police who promptly locked her up for 15 days. Friends here say that text messages and emails were all being carefully monitored for anti-Olympic content. A woman online was apparently locked up for something she had posted.

A friend in high school here hadn't even heard about the stabbing of the American, saying it certainly wasn't mentioned on TV. Although I did find some postings of it online, the government definitely played the incident down. But I did hear that the local police official (a chuzhang) where the incident occurred was promptly dismissed when it happened, and police all of the city were warned that it's better to hold 10 innocent people as suspects rather than to let one incident happen in their area of responsibility. So it was a big police state. Ahead of the games, police escorted beggars out of the city or into safe keeping, offering them about $10/day to stay off the streets and out of trouble.

And the games negatively affected small businesses here. A friend who runs a restaurant where there is usually a heavy night crowd singing karaoke and visiting "foot massage" prostitution houses says he has never made a loss in a month until August, when he lost $4,000. Previously his worst days still came in at $300/month, but he had a couple of days in August where his take was under $50. I ordered a safety door for my apartment, but was told it could not be delivered until late September following the para-olympics because the city was closed to all outside delivery vehicles.

In terms of the athletes, Liu Xiang gets the most attention and derision for dropping out of the 110 hurdles with an "injury". Most here don't seem to believe he was really injured. They think he was psyched out by his Cuban competitor who broke his record earlier this year. In short, the pressure was just too great. Some suggest that Liu Xiang took bribes from the Chinese mafia to not compete so that they could collect on the odds in Macau and Las Vegas. But in any case, Liu Xiang remains shrouded in mystery here. All ads featuring him were immediately pulled when he pulled out. A friend who happened to win tickets to the finals in the online lottery had bids of up to $1,000 for each of his two tickets. He was holding out for more money, never expecting Liu Xiang would pull out the next day. As a result, he got nearly nothing for the tickets, and kicks himself for not selling while the price was high. Friends here said there was even some concern that disgruntled fans might wreak havoc in the streets, and so police were on the alert throughout the city the day Liu Xiang pulled out.

People here are critical of the heavy hand the Chinese government holds over Chinese athletes. Tian Liang, who won diving gold in Athens, would likely have medaled in Beijing, but he was not allowed to compete because of his (over?)self-confidence and attempted forays into advertising and commercial stardom. After he won the gold in Athens, Liu Xiang was told not to act in movies - not fitting for hurdlers, I guess, in China to be screen stars?

Due to the games, the news in general has been suppressed more than usual. An explosion in Chengdu by activists for the renegade province out west was hardly reported at all in the Chinese press. A friend here heard about it because the walls in his friend's school were cracked by the blast and the whole area was sealed off to everyone. Friends say the latest tactic by authorities in "that renegade western province" is to just turn off the gas and power to communities that are suspected of being rebellious. Another friend saw a video where authorities in Henan were beating a 60 year old man who refused to move from his house, which was sitting on an area they wanted to bulldoze for an office building. When he went back to the website the next day, the link was gone. The new rumor I heard about the earthquake was that the army and government officials were evacuated from the area ahead of the quake because researchers were able to predict it, but chose not to share this information with the common people.

All these things might sound horrible - a plainsclothed military Olympics and Orwellian control over the press - but overall the mood remains reasonably upbeat about the job the government is doing. People are concerned about the post-Olympics economy with the stock market still so low and housing prices falling. But the fact that the common people have access to so much information that authorities might wish were suppressed means that levels of transparency are rising."

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