Beijing Under Wraps

By Jen Lin-Liu, the author of Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 04/08/08):

While eating dinner at a packed Spanish restaurant one recent evening, I found myself sitting next to two scorekeepers for the International Olympics Committee who had just arrived here. They remarked that they found Beijing, with all its recent construction projects, to be a very modern place. They were able to surf the Internet freely from their hotel rooms. Apart from the crazy drivers, the city didn’t seem that different from the ones in their countries, New Zealand and Canada.

That’s the Beijing many visitors coming for the Olympics will see. But unrestricted Internet use is a rarity, even for foreign reporters covering the Games, who this week discovered that the Chinese government is limiting their access to the Internet. Even as China projects a new air of openness and tolerance as it rolls out the welcome mat for Olympics visitors, the government is cracking down on citizens.

Last week, Chinese officials ordered copies of The Beijing News removed from newsstands and censored the newspaper’s Web site after it published a photograph of victims wounded during the 1989 democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. The authorities have barred distribution of the English version of Time Out Beijing, a magazine for which I write, for the past two months. A good friend who is an American professor had valuable political texts in Chinese seized when he arrived at Beijing’s airport. And a shipment of my recently published food memoir, which I intended to distribute to friends, was detained and sent back to the United States by Chinese customs officials, who explained that my books were not “approved materials.”

Officials have proclaimed that protesters will be able to demonstrate at locations around the city. In reality, they have rounded up numerous activists and put them under house arrest. I know of one case in which the government has locked up a dissident in a mental asylum.

Undesirables like beggars and migrant workers have also been pushed out of the Olympic spotlight, and many of them have been forced out of the city. New visa regulations have made it hard for tourists to enter the country and for long-time foreign residents like me to stay. Visa agencies estimate that thousands of foreigners have left the capital because of the new measures. The revised rules prompted my fiancé and me to move up our wedding day by several months, so I can remain in China on a spousal visa.

Community groups have organized my neighbors to don red armbands and sit on Nan Luogu Xiang, a trendy alley full of Western cafes and boutiques, to watch for “suspicious activities.” Proprietors have been told not to talk to journalists. Police officers have made sweeps of neighborhoods, where they knock on doors to ensure that everyone is properly registered at the local police station.

The dichotomy between what Olympics visitors will see and what residents experience may be most visible in the stadiums once the Games begin. I’ve asked Chinese friends, neighbors and the Olympic volunteers fanned across the capital if they are attending the games. Each has responded no.

I moved to Beijing eight years ago, just before China was awarded the Olympics. I was drawn to China because it was a country in transition, a place that had become better than what my mother’s family had fled more than half a century earlier.

Awarding Beijing the Olympics seemed to further the promise of change. I recall the reasoning that supporters used in choosing Beijing — the Games would help foster a more open, modern China — perhaps even a democratic one.

Maybe in the long run that will prove true. But so far, just days ahead of the opening ceremony, the result has been the opposite of what many of us hoped for.