Top 5 China events of the decade (for me)

A week ago the Shanghaiist asked me if I’d prepare an end-of-year or end-of-decade list of what were for me the top 5 China-related event.

Now that the post has been up on their site a few days, I’m reprinting it here for posterity. These are not necessarily the most important things that happened. The Sichuan earthquake, for example, is more important than some of my other choices. There were too many to choose from, like Sun Zhigang, the tainted milk scandal and Hu’s tremendously important strides in bringing Africa closer to China. Instead, these are the items that touched me on a very personal level, inspiring me to feel joy or outrage, hope or gloom.

From Shanghaiist:

Richard Burger worked in Greater China (mostly the PRC) as a PR executive for more than six years, the last few months of which he spent as editor and columnist for the English-language Chinese daily newspaper The Global Times. He is also the author of one of the oldest and most respected China blogs, The Peking Duck

What a difference ten years has made for China, from the new kid on the block to one of the world’s most influential movers and shakers. Since 2000, China has turned the notion of “New World Order” on its head.

During those 10 years we’ve watched China experience some breathtaking highs and painful lows. I first started watching China early in 2001, when I moved from the US to Hong Kong, and still remember exactly where I was and how I felt when I heard the big news that made it to No.1 on my Personal Five Most Significant China Stories of the decade.

1. July 13, 2001: Beijing is named host city for 2008 Olympic Games

This announcement created a wave of euphoria that only intensified as the Opening Ceremony approached. From the moment it was reported until the Olympic Green was locked down at the end of August 2008 we’ve never seen so many people so motivated for so many years over a sports competition. Nothing since has ever topped this one.

2. April 20, 2003: Chinese government holds live on-air SARS press conference

I know, that sounds kind of dry. But if you were there watching it live you’ll know just how jaw-dropping it was. Some of the world’s most tight-lipped, rarely seen leaders took live questions from the international media pool in Beijing and revealed there were hundreds more known cases of SARS in Beijing than they’d admitted earlier. Afterwards, the minister of health and the mayor of Beijing were fired for negligence of duty and the May holiday was canceled to keep people from traveling. Live and in person, we watched China’s government realize that being a global power demands accountability.

3. April 7, 2008: A Chinese hero is born

It couldn’t have been better scripted by the propaganda department: A graceful young woman, an Olympic torchbearer confined to a wheelchair, is attacked in full public view in Paris by a pro-Tibet activist determined to grab the Olympic torch from her hands. She refuses to yield, using her body to protect the torch as if it were a child. The timing was incredible: China was reeling from criticism of its handling of ethnic tension in Tibet, and photos of the emotionally charged scene galvanized the global Chinese community and created a groundswell of national pride just when China needed it. This sense of commonality and closing rank was to be matched only by the volunteerism generated by the Sichuan earthquake the next month – a close runner-up for this list.

4. June 16, 2009: Chinese court frees Deng Yujiao

The release of Deng Yujiao, the 21-year-old Chinese karaoke waitress turned folk hero who stabbed to death a drunken party official who tried to force her to have sex, resonated with everyone in China. Originally found guilty of murder, her plight captured the imagination of Chinese activists and netizens and her release was historic, proving that with enough pressure from an energized and outraged public the Chinese government will respond to injustices that in the past were swept under the carpet. We’ll know in the year ahead if it truly marked a turning point.

5. June 2009 – present: Post-Olympic communication crackdown

After opening its Internet more than ever before for the 2008 Olympic Games, China took a sharp swerve in the opposite direction the next year. The ominous clouds of heightened censorship moved in prior to the 20th anniversary of the “Tiananamen Square Incident” with the banning of Chinese and English-language social media sites and it kept getting worse right through the October 1 festivities, with no end in sight to this day. Many had misread the April 20, 2003 press conference as a sign China was ready to open up. In some ways it has, but the Internet remains more censored than ever.


I know we all have our different picks for a list like this. So feel free to suggest your own.


China’s Luxury Mall Calamity

More than two and a half years ago I wrote about the inevitable collapse of China’s luxury malls. A brief reminder:

Anyone who’s walked around Shanghai’s more prosperous areas (and Beijing’s as well) is well familiar with the glut of luxury stores, with Bulgari and Gucci boutiques everywhere you look. This always fascinated me – the sheer number of such places in areas where I knew there couldn’t possibly be enough customers to ensure sustainable long-term profitability. I would sometimes stand outside the shops and watch for as long as half an hour (I didn’t have much better to do on the weekends). I remember seeing the shopkeepers going to fantastic lengths to look busy. One of them kept dusting the shelves obsessively. Another kept a book (or maybe a magazine) discreetly under the counter, at an angle where she could read while keeping an eye on the front door. One kept rearranging her hair. Another must have had the best-filed fingernails in all of Asia. This wasn’t a scientific study, of course, but based on what I saw with my own eyes I was convinced the high-end luxury goods stores had been overbuilt, and that eventually they’d either have to pack up and leave or keep eating what had to be painful losses.

Today I visited Beijing’s most stunningly dysfunctional, catastrophic mall, called The Place, and all I could think about was what I wrote back in 2006. Made to look kind of like Versailles on the outside, The Place is an irrational maze of stores and eateries that seems to have been designed to turn off and turn away customers. It has stairways that lead nowhere, unmarked elevators that take you to surprising places, not to mention a generally chintzy feeling created by all the faux marble and Grecian columns; it always looked pompous, but now it’s looking seedy and run-down as well.

The Place is around the corner from my office, and this was my first trip back in about two months, I was shocked at what I saw. Fifty percent of the eateries in the basement were boarded up. The cheap food court, too, was gone, covered up with ugly blue boarding, making the basement especially grim and dreary. The two good restaurants there, Ganges and Master Kong Chef’s, were still thriving. The few others that remained seemed to be just hanging on.

That same night I went by The Village, which seemed so cool when it first arrived and now seems so unnecessary aside from the Apple store and a couple of restaurants. Same thing as The Place: lonely clerks looking plaintively out the store windows, eyes begging you to come in and buy something. But no one does. There is simply too much stuff, too many stores, and no buyers. Do you have to be a rocket scientist to conclude this is unsustainable? And to top it off, they are now finishing the second Village mall down the street, across from the Poppa Bear of all disaster malls, 3.3. All I can say is, WTF??

I’m predicting The Place and many of its sister ghost malls, shunned by customers overwhelmed by so many malls to choose from, each selling the same crap that no one can afford nowadays, are going to experience a catastrophe, if they haven’t already, and will ultimately become burnt-out, boarded-up shells. In turn, this is going to throw a lot of fuel on China’s current financial crisis. Real estate will be further cheapened, and the general misery unique to times of deflation will set in. Brother, can you spare a dime?

All I want to know is how we got here. I told them this was coming 2.5 years ago and no one listened. The day of reckoning, the moment of truth is here. Even if things pick up, these malls are hopeless. Like the Mandarin Oriental, they will need to be razed and replaced with something useful, like affordable middle class housing (wishful thinking on my part). If not, Beijing could become a city pockmarked with looming dinosaurs, huge husks of once breathtaking buildings, now vacant and decaying, like so many of the Olympic structures.

I kind of understand why this overbuilding happened, as the economy became a vicious inflationary circle. Now we are experiencing the down wave, and it’s just starting. As we crash, The Place and many other useless mega-malls like it will serve only as reminders of the excesses of good times that we fooled ourselves into believing would last forever. Their time has now come. In fact, their demise is long overdue.


Hu Jia wins Sakharov Prize for Freedom

A late-night quickie:

The European Parliament on Thursday awarded its top human rights prize to jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia despite warnings from China that its relations with the 27-nation bloc would be seriously damaged if it did so.

In selecting Hu to receive the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European lawmakers said they are “sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China.” Hu has advocated for the rights of Chinese citizens with HIV-AIDS and chronicled the arrest, detention and abuse of other activists.

After I posted a few weeks ago that I felt Hu was deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize, I had an opportunity to discuss his career with friends of mine (Westerners involved in government) who are much more familiar with his activities than I. Since then, I’ve had rather mixed feelings about Hu Jia.

His arrest is certainly prima facie evidence that today’s CCP retains much of the prickly, pig-headed, uptight, asinine qualities of yore. And yet, there’s no denying Hu was often a self-promoter, practically shouting at the government, “Arrest me,” especially considering his timing. (He was warned that such antics right before the Olympic Games would not be tolerated, and he persisted in a most in-your-face manner.) None of that even begins to justify his arrest, but maybe it raises questions about Hu’s judgment and motivations?

Hu did dedicate much of his time to raising awareness of AIDS and environmental issues in China. But my friends, one of whom works at the United Nations, challenged me about what Hu has actually done aside from draw attention to himself and get himself arrested. I mentioned a project he launched to help AIDS orphans in Henan, and they countered that it was more hype than anything else. “Basically he wrote some emails,” my friend countered. “Do we award the Nobel Prize to someone who just sent out emails?” Before anyone jumps on a high horse and says I’m slandering Hu Jia (whom I’ve defended many times on this blog), please understand I am only saying I don’t know – that maybe he’s an example of our emotions (mine included) making us jump to conclusions. Or maybe he actually did deserve the Nobel Prize. As I said, mixed feelings.

Whether he deserves the Sakharov Prize is up for debate, as with any prize for political activism. In any case, if this inspires greater scrutiny of China’s repressive tendencies, paranoia and eagerness to arrest anyone who threatens to shed light on them, then I’m glad Hu Jia won.

I meant to put up a one-liner, and suddenly it became a tome. Good night.


The gymnast controversy – China’s censors at work


The following article from the Globe and Mail gives an interesting point-of-view on the controversy over the age of some of China’s gold-medal winning women’s gymnastics team.

What is really creepy about what’s emerged from the reporting of the gymnastics controversy is how state-owned agencies have rewritten themselves online to “correct” the record – in other words, rewritten history and attempted to expunge any contrary evidence…

What the researchers also found was that in several instances, the stories which had reported the ‘wrong’ ages – either written before the girls in question made the Olympic team or before anyone realized age mattered so much, the numbers were simply mentions in results-driven stories about various competitions – have been corrected to reflect the ‘right’, or state-approved, ages.

It is unlikely that a smoking gun will be found to prove that one or more of the Chinese girls was under-age, even if there is a lot of circumstantial evidence. The international gymnastics body certainly doesn’t seem to care, given it didn’t even query China’s story, which probably shows the depth of its “commitment” to stop young girls being exploited (one should note that there is no requirement on daily calorie consumption as the G & M observes).

So it makes the reaction of the Chinese authorities idiotic for two reasons – one as it only gives further fuel to those who doubt the official line and two because it demonstrates clearly to the outside world the Chinese State’s ability and willingness to manipulate the media. People only somewhat (or not at all) interested in China may have heard stories about censorship before, but with the attention this incident has caused around the world the subsequent “cover-up” has clearly shattered any possible reputation for media independence China has been trying to create (and will make it even more difficult to build any such status in the future).

The article finishes:

So, in the end, it’s not the Chinese gymnasts or how old they are that counts; it’s the Chinese censors propagandists and professional liars, and what they’re doing, that tells the tale.

One very said thing is that I doubt the Chinese authorities even realise the damage they were causing to how China is seen around the world.


Olympic round-up


The Olympics have only recently kicked off, but there is already a lot to talk about. For example, Michael Phelps is bidding to win an unprecedented eight gold medals in the swimming, something that he could quite possibly do – one down, seven to go. But regardless of whether he can reach this target or not, all Americans should feel proud of him anyway – even with a “mediocre” haul this year he would still be one of the most impressive athletes ever to contest the Games.

But perhaps some of the more interesting news deals with events surrounding the Olympics. The start was tainted by the sad murder of an American tourist, Todd Bachman, by some psychopathic Chinese man, who then himself committed suicide. But what I found even more horrifying were allegations that the Chinese authorities have been trying to sweep this under the carpet.

Chinese residents who lived and worked close to the scene of the crime appeared to be under orders not to discuss the incident. ‘Why are you paying so much attention to this? Murders happen all the time. You should pay attention to the two gold medals that China won today,’ said a middle-aged woman in a flower-patterned shirt.

Yes, so long as China tops the medal table who cares if visitors to Beijing are murdered?

We can hope that the report is wrong, but what this woman said seems like a typical result of Chinese propaganda enforcement. When people are told to ignore bad news and focus on the good, comments like these slip out. The other explanation, that this was a genuine view, would be even more terrible if it reflected a wider attitude and would indicate that Chinese nationalism being whipped up by the CCP over the Olympics is now leading many Chinese people to abandon common-sense.

Then we had the eruption of conflict in Georgia, with Russian troops responding to an attempt by Tbilisi to bring the rebel region of South Ossetia under its control – thousands may have died already. There have also been reports of gun-fights and attempted bombings in Xinjiang.

In regards to overly optimistic hopes that the Olympics would lead to greater openness/freedom in China, AP reports that human rights activist Zeng Jinyan has “disappeared”.

A Chinese human rights activist whose husband was jailed earlier this year has disappeared and may have been taken by police to prevent her from speaking to journalists during the Beijing Olympics, an overseas-based human rights group said Friday.

The group, Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said Zeng Jinyan disappeared on Thursday and has not been heard from. Zeng is married to activist Hu Jia, who was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in April.

I’m sure the Chinese authorities will claim that she has wandered off on his own accord and have no idea where he is. That’s CCP regional monitoring at its best – its defence to detention of people who give a damn about something other than their own interests is that it has no idea what the local authorities are doing. If that’s the supposedly “efficient” Communist autocracy that we’re repeatedly told is China’s only future, God forbid that we see chaos and incompetance from the CCP.

Furthermore it appears that anyone asking for a protest permit is being turned down – what a surprise! Indeed, it’s an even better wheeze for the Chinese authorities, as they can use the lure of Olympic protest to flush out protestors and detain/arrest them. Not unlike the way Mao used the Hundred Flowers Campaign to identify and then silence his critics and potential opponents.

A housing activist who applied for permission to hold a demonstration in Beijing’s specially designated Olympic protest zones has been detained by police. The detention of Zhang Wei, whose home was demolished two years ago to make way for an upmarket development in Beijing’s Qianmen district, highlights the Chinese government’s crackdown on dissent ahead of the opening of the games on Friday.

Police detained Ms Zhang on Wednesday for allegedly “disturbing social order”, a member of her family said on Thursday. She was told Ms Zhang would be transferred to a detention centre in south Beijing, family members said.

Yes, “distburbing social order”. Otherwise known as “highlighting the not-so-heroic actions of the Chinese ruling party” and spoiling their attempts to trick the Chinese people into think that they are practically-perfect-in-every-way. This theme is continued by the laughable assertions of Wang Wei, who said that blocking websites is “good” for Chinese people.

“That’s an assessment made by the authorities of which sites are good and which are not good for our youth. It’s like what any other country does.”

Perhaps Wang would like to tell us what websites critical of the ruling Labour Party and its policies are blocked in the UK?

The feeble rebuttals of Jacques Rogge, IOC chief puppet, to examples of China violating its Olympic promises continue.

“But there will be a review of what happened when we come to audit the Games when they are over.”

Yes, after the Olympics are over and the CCP has already have extracted maximum propaganda effect from it, the IOC can come down hard for the 2012 Olympics to ensure that us Brits don’t block websites for criticising the UK – which we already doesn’t do…..

Does the IOC have any shame? Guess not – the flood of dollars and yuan make up for that.

Finally we have the damning comments of a former top Party official, Bao Tong, on the way China trains its athletes.

It is very naive to take the number of gold medals won as an indicator of the rise of China. That sort of patriotism…has nothing to do with the Olympic spirit…

China has sponsored a top-down professionalized system, a totally segregated approach to athletic training… It has its roots in the Chinese Communist Party’s experience of the 1927-37 Chinese civil war, when peasants who relied on the land for their existence took up arms as their revolutionary duty to fight for a share of it. In the process, they were torn away from their families, from the rest of society, and from normal economic activities…

China’s athletes are chosen as young children…and taken away from their families, from their schools, and totally cut off from normal social activities. The door is closed, and they give up their entire youth and part of their childhoods for the sole aim of entering and winning competitions, an aim for which they are totally re-molded by the system.

The whole article should be read, but I thought these comments especially good:

China’s array of medals and prizes was produced out of the sweat, tears, and lives of generations of athletes and paralympians…You can’t use the achievements of our young people to cover up or to dilute the mistakes of the country’s leaders.

That the CCP tries to do that shows its real nature. To it, any Chinese person is a “natural resource” that can be exploited in any way, at any time, to prolong its rule.

There is one clear barometer of how good a political system is. It’s no good listening to what people say; mouths are very unreliable. You have to look at what the feet are doing. A good system will attract people. People in China may be living quite happily, and foreigners may make light of traveling a thousand miles to visit. But would they want to emigrate here? When they have seen the Olympics, seen the show, and had a chance to understand Chinese people a bit better, and to compare China to their own country, then what? I am certain that while they will say a lot of nice things about China, they are not going to start flooding in to live here. Whereas Chinese people would be leaving in their tens of thousands if the opportunity was there.

Quite true.


My Olympic ticket story

The following is a guest post from my friend Bill, an old-time China hand who’s been here nearly 17 years. He is an affable fellow who many of you know. No China basher he. His story appears to be verified over here. This post does not necessarily reflect the views of this site’s owner, who was not there.

Today I was an active participant in what was without question the most barbaric episode of Chinese history I’ve during my past 16 years living here. Waiting in line, outdoors in 35c swealtering heat for Olympics tickets.

I was quite impressed with the previous on-line ticket lotteries. Whoever decided it was time to have an olympics’ tickets free-for-all off-line during a Beijing summer deserves to face the Party (and possibly the UN) for his crimes against humanity.

It was announced on the local news this week that the final 700,000 tickets would be sold on July 25th in Beijing at the ticket counters of the respective venues where the events were to be held starting from 9:00 a.m. I knew it would be a little crazy, but at least thought that a.) the crowds will be spread out to the different venues and b.) this is a unique opportunity to make friends out of shared comraderie. You know, like we do every week when our flights are delayed and no indication is given as to when or if it will take off. So, what the heck I trampsed to the Bird’s Nest at 5:00 a.m. only to learn that all tickets were to be sold from the Asian Games (AoTi) venue.

I got to AoTi and did a quick poll from the upper part of the line to learn some people had been there since Wednesday. Not a good sign. Anyway, I took my place at the end of what seemed like a 10 kms wrap-around line and soon met my two new “best friends,” Chen Laoshi, A Tsinghua University professor of management and Xiao Wang, a UIBE student of accounting. These are numbers guys, so I figured if they’re going to wait this out my chances are pretty decent to get tickets. Had they been art students, I would have been off like a prom dress.

I’m not sure exactly how many people were in the line(s), but a rough guess would be at least 20,000. Thinking 700,000 tickets divided by 20,000 folks waiting ahead of me, in the worst case scenario if I wait it out I’ll at least get to see the Albania vs. Chad Women’s beach volleyball preliminary.

How could I have been so bloody naive? Seven hours later, nearly at the strike of noon, an almost 18-year-old PLA soldier came by and told us they have finished selling tickets for today, but we can stay in line to wait for when they begin selling these tickets the next day at 9:00 a.m. HELLO! Who volunteers to be a refugee in Darfur?

I should mention in more detail, there was no general announcement to the throngs of people waiting and profusely sweating in line. I had been pinching cigarettes from that PLA boy and rewarding him with RMB 5 notes throughout the morning which is why he came to inform me & my numbers guy clique of the news. The masses before and behind us were not informed to my knowledge, at least not in an formal manner.

Mr. Management and Mr. future CPA (unrelated except for meeting in the ticket line) decided to cut their losses and go their respective ways home. They were long gone before I could ask how to say “Gimme Shelter…” in Mandarin. I felt like this barbarious situation needed some screaming and yelling, but I was just too self-absorbed at the thought of returning home for a cool shower, some AC and a chance to pee. Yes, there were no WC’s available to the masses. God knows how the Wednesday arrivee’s were faring.

The subject often comes up whether such sudden development in China is good versus the “simpler way life was before.” And, a popular dinner topic among certain long term or returning expats is similar. Hai gui friends have the same conversation but on different levels. It often ends with people trying to reinforce their opinion that before we did not have these traffic jams, this fast paced life, the intense competition for jobs, etc.

Today’s experience is my end-all to that topic. Though, I have always reminded other foreigners and returnees living here that life for a Chinese person sitting in their car in traffic in Beijing with their heat in winter or air conditioning in summer is a great leap foward versus being on a bicycle. Ok, Ok, …same for the new public transport options.

So, lining up for anything which can otherwise be booked on-line truely ‘serves the people’ and if anyone argues with me on that point, I welcome them to enjoy this Green Beijing summer in a line for Olympic tickets now.

The CCTV news this week informed Beijing residents, “The last day to buy Olympics tickets is July 25th.” How many hours in a day?

Update by Richard. I wanted to move a remark I made in the comments into the actual post: “To the less hysterical readers, I don’t blame the ticket buyers for this, but the bureaucrats who allowed it to happen. The entire thing was a recipe for chaos. Sure, I’d like to see some improvement in line-waiting etiquette, but that’s happening – compared to 2002 there’s been huge progress.”


Qingdao algae cleared – remaining Olympic doubts


The BBC reports that the algae that was causing considerable worry in regards to the Olympic sailing events.

The Chinese government has successfully cleared tonnes of algae that was blocking the Olympic sailing course in the eastern city of Qingdao. A special protection zone was set up using a boom and netting. But in other areas the thick bright green algae is still polluting the beaches.

My fear was that all the algae couldn’t be cleared – which may well still be the case when the sailing event starts next month. But because the sailing area has been successfully cordoned off that won’t be a problem for the athletes and their supporters. So may the best sailors win – if they can deal with the potential for light winds and (so I have been told) fog.

But I still have doubts about the Olympics. Not so much over the events at Qingdao or even the Beijing Olympics as a whole. There are concerns over many matters regarding 2008, such as air pollution and the increasing suppression of human rights in China – as opposed to the promise that they would improve (who actually believed the CCP would willingly co-operate on this?) – in order to promote the public image of a “harmonious society” to the world. No, it’s the IOC.

Whenever there’s a problem with the Olympics in terms of delivery of the Games, it is the host nation that gets the blame. Sure that is usually justified because they have years and years to plan and build facilities. But the IOC’s role in choosing the hosts in the first place is rarely focused on. Why is it that Beijing was selected given its pollution problem even back when selection took place? This was only going to get worse given China’s growing economy even under the most optimistic projections. Similarly selecting Los Angeles in 1984 was questionable. Back to China, an argument advanced was that awarding the Games would encourage China to improve its human rights. Why? The CCP has repeatedly demonstrated that it sees power in China as a right, not a privilege. Indeed it believes it is the organisation making the “sacrifice” because without it the country would fall apart because no one else can rule. Well, sure, if you suppress a free media and other political organisations that would make it difficult to find alternatives to govern a nation.

Really I do not think that there should be any more competitions to award the Games. The idea of it being rotated around the world is essentially a way for the IOC to exploit international competition in getting cities (and essentially nations) to promise to offer more than their rivals. In London the IOC demanded a fleet of limousines and dedicated car lanes, as it wasn’t enough to have special buses and coaches laid on (only the little people use buses, they would say). As a result IOC members get an endless supply of freebies and are treated like royalty wherever they go. There is probably still a certain about of bribery going on as well.

This could all be stopped by having the Olympics happen at fixed locations. If the Olympics used to be held at Olympia, why not have a complex built and maintained there or somewhere else suitable in Greece? Or indeed re-use facilities at the location of a previous Olympics – maybe rotate between a few cities at most. It would save an absolute fortune. But the problem is the IOC only cares about the amount of money that it can generate from the Olympics and little else.

We already have the site of the 2012 Olympics agreed upon, and it is highly likely that 2016 and 2020 will be finalised through open competitions. Will we ever live to see the Olympics become an event focused on sport and mutual respect rather than money-spinning and petty nationalism? Maybe not, but one can only hope.


China’s Word/Phrase of the Year

In the US, I would nominate “subprime.” In China, my suggestion is “visa policy.

With the Beijing Olympics less than two months away, hotel operators, travel agencies, and foreign businessmen say new Chinese visa restrictions are proving bad for business, casting a pall over Beijing during what was supposed to be a busy and jubilant tourist season leading up to the Olympic Games.

Chinese authorities acknowledged putting new visa restrictions in place in May — after foreign embassies reported fewer visas being granted and tighter, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, restrictions. The government did not release guidelines detailing the changes in policy; it often does not. But a foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said in May that they would be temporary.

On Monday, Hu Bin, a visa official at the foreign ministry, said the ministry had no statistics on the number of visa denials, but that the new policies were put in place for “security considerations.”

Travel business analysts had forecast that the Games would bring 500,000 foreign visitors and an extra $4.5 billion in revenue to Beijing this summer. But now, even though some five-star hotels are fully booked for the Olympics, many economists are beginning to doubt the city will get the kind of economic windfall it was hoping for.

Many hotels in Beijing are struggling to find guests; some large travel agencies have temporarily closed branches; and people scheduled to travel here for seminars and conferences are canceling. The number of foreign tourists visiting Beijing fell sharply in May, dropping by 14 percent, according to the city’s statistics bureau.

Beijing residents, meanwhile, are complaining that heightened security measures could spoil what was supposed to be Beijing’s long anticipated coming-out party. Despite years of careful preparation — including teaching taxi drivers English and instructing locals in how to wait in a line (not common here), and spending billions on mammoth building projects for these Games — Beijing is starting to appear less welcoming to foreigners.

“Business is so bleak,” said Di Jian, the sales manager at the Capital Hotel in Beijing. “Since May, very few foreigners have checked in. Our occupancy rate has dropped by 40 percent.”

I have been apartment hunting (finally found a new place) and there is now a sizable glut of places. Those landlords who’ve held up thinking that August would make them gazillionaires are in for a rude shock, largely thanks to their government’s ham-fisted policies. Prices are higher, for sure, but not outrageous, and as August 8 approaches they will have to drop further. I keep hearing how people are staying away largely due to the misery and complications of getting a visa. Foreigners I know who live here as freelancers are getting very creative (I won’t give away any secrets).

This seems to be the cocktail party topic of choice throughout Beijing, mainly because it’s simply bewildering. You can’t open the door and slam it shut at the same time. Yeah, you need to be careful and keep security top of mind. Getting through security at a US airport now is a descent into hell, but at least you know you’ll eventually get through in a fairly reasonable amount of time, ridiculous as the bureaucracy is. With getting a visa, the outcome is far less certain, and a high level of anxiety is practically guaranteed because there are so many unknowns and gray areas.

Most bewildering is that the self-inflicted visa mess flies in the face of all of China’s goals: to open up the country to the world; to show that they have emerged from a prickly authoritarian state defined by its mindless bureaucracy to a modern superpower defined by its adorable fuwas and slick skyscrapers; to give tourism the greatest boost ever and encourage the masses around the world to head over. So once again, the country I love mystifies me with its irrational, self-defeating, hopelessly confused rules.

And to add the balance we all crave, the US mystifies me as well, and every time I see airport security grab one of those lethal tubes of toothpaste and chuck it into the tall clear plastic bin I wonder just how nutty governments can be. At least with the US, I kind of see why they go through the ridiculous procedures. In the case of the visa policy, I see neither rhyme nor reason, only a murky, unthought-through self-imposed mess.



Smoke, mirrors and the Beijing Olympics

Long-time China hand Ross Terrill writes today of China’s efforts not only to clean up Chinglish in Beijing, but also to create its own truth, Potemkin Village-style, to show you the China it wants you to see, which often has little to do with the China that actually is. This is, of course, nothing very new; it’s why CCTV-9 exists. Will the masses of tourists and foreign journalists be fooled?

Banished from Beijing for the Olympics will be not only fractured English, but disabled people, Falun Gong practitioners, dark-skinned villagers newly arrived in the city, AIDS activists and other ‘troublemakers’ who smudge the canvas of socialist harmony.

Fictions will abound for the month of August 2008. On all fronts the party-state will pull the rabbit of harmony from the hat of cacophony – ‘What do you mean by dissidents?’ Scientists have been told to produce a quota of ‘blue days’ with a clear sky, perpetuating a Chinese Communist tradition of defying natural as well as human barriers to its self-appointed destiny. Mao vowed to plant rice in the dry north of China as well as the lush south, to prove the power of socialism. ‘We shall make the sun and moon change places,’ he cried. None of this occurred.

Likewise, in 2001, arguing before the world to get the Olympic Games, the vice president of Beijing’s bid committee said, ‘By allowing Beijing to host the Games, you will help the development of human rights.’ Yet the opposite danger looms: Games preparation has spurred repression.

Every day, government censors send news organizations a list of forbidden topics and guidelines for covering acceptable ones. The price for ignoring the list: dismissal of an editor or closure of the publication. Last spring, government supervisors even instructed the TV producers of ‘Happy Boys Voice,’ a Chinese version of ‘American Idol,’ to eliminate “weirdness, vulgarity and low taste.’ No wonder Dai Qing, a journalist who was imprisoned after Tiananmen in 1989, says the only thing she believes in China’s press is the weather report.

Truth and power are both headquartered in the Communist party-state. ‘Truth’ (socialism sparkles, people adore the party) is not only enforced by the party-state but created by it. Stamp out Chinglish; ban ‘unhealthy thinking’; just keep the picture pretty – or else.

Living in China is great right now, for me, anyway. But think about how much greater it would be if it didn’t fall for its own propaganda, if it didn’t feel it needed to scrub the city of its handicapped and dark-skinned citizens, if it didn’t feel it had to cover everything with window dressing. Terrill ends his op-ed with some wisdom that should be obvious to everyone, yet somehow seems permanently to elude the CCP.

The Chinese state, for better and for worse, knows exactly what it’s doing, in Africa and at home. Still, a brilliant Olympic Games will be no more of a clue to the future of Chinese Communist rule than the spectacular 1936 Berlin Games were a sign of Nazism’s longevity. Correct language, like a gold medal, is desirable in itself. But neither guarantees glory for a state that pursues them for political ends (ask the Soviet Union). Sport should just be sport. The democracies should insist on that and leave political manipulation to the dictatorships.

It’s really a shame that to the party, the Olympics is all about altering the world’s perception about China using whatever methods possible, no matter how ham-fisted or unintentionally droll, a strategy that’s bound to backfire. Sure, every country that hosts the Olympic Games wants to show the world its best, but “the best” that China’s intent on showing is manufactured, having little or nothing to do with China’s reality.

China is such a great country with so much vitality and ingenuity. Why try to blind everyone with cheap stunts and pyrotechnics designed to obfuscate rather than educate? I don’t want to see China turn itself into the laughing stock of the world. Can someone just tell them to cut the sugar-coating and act like a real country, one that acknowledges its strengths and its weaknesses, its greatness and its shortcomings. The world will be fooled by all the smoke and mirrors just as it is fooled by those insane public rallies for Kim Jong Il across the border, which is to say not very much.

Yeah, I know this is a rant of pure wishful thinking, and Hu is highly unlikely to take my advice. But it’s okay to dream, isn’t it?


Lucky numbers and the 2008 Beijing Olympics

This is vintage China:

The 2008 Beijing Olympics will begin at 8pm on 8 August, in keeping with one of the nation’s lucky numbers.

Eight is considered auspicious in China because its pronunciation in Cantonese sounds the same as the word for to make money.

The Games had originally been planned to commence in late August to avoid Beijing’s soaring summer temperatures.

But Beijing’s mayor said the sporting festival would begin in the luckiest manner possible – at eight on 8/8/08.

Mayor Wang Qishan conceded it would still be hot in early August, with the temperature often climbing above 40 degrees Celsius.

They sure take their lucky numbers seriously there, as I’ve noted before.