Sunday, August 3, 2008


by Philip J Cunningham

Beijing August 3, 2008

“Where’s the Forbidden City?” a blonde-haired woman asks at an Olympic information kiosk. The Beijing volunteers sporting blue and white T-shirts take so long to come up with an answer that I am almost tempted to intervene.

“Forbidden City? You’re in it!”

Beijing, under strict watch and privileged as the capital to begin with, has become a bit more forbidding than usual with all the Olympic rules, regulations and tight security precautions. The clean, spruced up streets have become further rarified by sending hundreds of thousands of rural workers back to the provinces while restricting the number of foreign tourist with new visa regulations. For those of us privileged enough to be here, there are still boxes within boxes to negotiate, as the city is carved up into forbidden zones of privilege to accommodate the Olympics in impeccable style.

There’s the vermillion walled grand palace once occupied by the purple and yellow clad Qing emperors of course, known to most Chinese as “gu-gong”, but even that sweeping architectural monument is dwarfed by the sheer number of forbidden zones in the modern city. There are vast walled compounds for leaders, party officials, military, police, diplomats, foreign residents, and now, for the time being at least, strictly guarded zones related to the Olympics which go beyond the Olympic Village to include dozens of major hotels, and college campuses.

Even Tiananmen Square, that once open and unbounded plaza located smack in front of the entrance gate to the feudal Forbidden City, putting old China in symbolic counterpoint to the egalitarian promise of the new China, is now reduced to a heavily guarded, fenced-in site with limited access.

If the people of China sometimes grumble or shrug their shoulders about being "put out" by playing host to the world, their discomfort is mitigated by a shared cultural imperative to do the right thing when “having company.”

That’s not to say that treating guests differently from locals is not without its awkward moments. When I arrived in China by boat from Japan in July, disembarkation was delayed an hour by due to a safety check. Far more discomforting than the muggy heat was the announcement that travelers had to line up by nationality.

As an American I was directed to the head of the line, followed by Japanese, followed by the majority of passengers who were Chinese. The intent may have been Olympic-style courtesy in name of international harmony, but it created a sense of unease instead, especially for families of mixed nationality.

It reminded me of China in the early eighties when Chinese and foreigners lived side by side in parallel worlds, moving with apparent freedom but never intersecting, like bishops of opposite color on a chessboard.

What is it about China then and now, that makes being forced to inhabit a no-Chinese zone the highest honor that can be bestowed on foreigner who ostensibly wants to see China and rub shoulders with its people?

At Tianjin train station, the segregation was strictly economic, the “soft” waiting rooms of the sort once reserved for foreigners and VIPs now available for a fee. From that modest enclave we were whisked to Beijing on a sleek Chinese bullet train named Harmony only to encounter intense chaos at Beijing Station due to a taxi-queue monopoly and the sealing off of the subway entrance, explained by exasperated locals as an Olympic-related move to inhibit the flow of provincial arrivals.

Is it a triumph of traditional hospitality or a failure of confidence that a city be cordoned off for the “convenience” of guests?

The customary street-life of the Beijing neighborhood where I’ve lived on and off for twenty years has been oddly subdued in recent days. The habitual sidewalk vendors, beggars, buskers, DVD touts and lookers-on have vanished without a trace, replaced by a trickle of foot traffic watched over by police and security guards resting under red and yellow umbrellas sporting the “I’m Lovin’ It” logo. The best café and best restaurant in the area had to halt business, fenced off inside a sterile zone created for the American delegation, but the adjacent fast food joint remains open.

Even if members of the American delegation were to step beyond the comfort zone created expressly for them to grab a burger or perhaps take a walk for a taste of quotidian life, they might find it hard to appreciate that what they see and don’t see is a direct result of their presence.

The American footprint on campus and the surrounding neighborhood is so heavy it has altered the topography.

Twenty-two years earlier I had been assigned “foreign” housing on the same campus, but being a student of Chinese history I bristled at the idea that I live in a habitat created for foreigners. It took a letter of introduction from the widow of a former PLA war hero to secure a place outside of foreign-designated zone, and even that “breakout” put me in an anomalous situation. I dined and bathed in shabby communal splendor with local students, but was under curfew and close watch in the “Inside Guesthouse.”

Over time I’ve come to appreciate that this leafy campus is not just about students but is also the de facto public park for the neighborhood, a place where old timers take walks, kids frolic in front of library where the Mao statue used to stand and joggers enjoy free run of the tracks.

No more, at least not until the Olympics are over. Campus is under a kind of double lock-down, outsiders can’t get in and insiders are denied freedom of movement within. Resident families are carded at every gate and uniformed guards are posted every hundred steps along the leafy campus thoroughfare. Outside nearly every building or sports ground an American is likely to use, temporary tents house X-ray machines and inspection teams. The Inside Guest House was razed, replaced by a modern amenity center for American athletes. The twin campus running tracks are wrapped in opaque blue shrouding.

The uncanny stillness at the normally bustling East Gate of campus brings to mind Brandenburg Gate in the days when Berlin’s main thoroughfare was divided by a wall, only now, in the spirit of openness, economy and flexibility, vermillion walls and stone turrets have been replaced unsightly wire fences of the sort used to keep North Korean refugees from scaling embassy walls.

Security concerns are real and athletes intent on being the best in the world require privacy in habitats that are familiar and convenient.

So, if it’s inconvenient it is mostly understandable, though some of the rules, such as bans on outdoor parties, kite flying and nightlife are at best only tenuously linked to the welfare of visiting guests.

Athletes and foreign dignitaries, including the US president, will also move inside narrow sterile zones within wrapped in forbidden zones, seeing Beijing without seeing Beijing.

It is a testament to how much China has and hasn't changed in the last quarter of a century that forbidden zones abound and access remains defined by status.

Although the foreigner-only Friendship Stores and Friendship Hotels are dinosaurs of a by-gone era, new elite comfort zones create a modern equivalent of the same, based more on money than passport.

Today’s draconian rules are resented but not resisted because of the unspoken compact that things will loosen up again when the honored guests leave. But in a city as status-driven as Beijing, forbidden zones have an innate appeal. Even after the shrouds, facades and temporary fencing come down, one wonders if the playing fields that count the most will ever be level.