Yankee, go home!

Michaela Griffin reports that being an American expatriate in Beijing was great -- until the president decided to visit.

By Michaela Griffin
Published July 2, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

BEIJING, June 27: The police came to visit us last night, and as they flipped through our American passports, they confided the reason they were assigned to bother us: "It's because your president is here." No waffling for these guys.

Living in Beijing is always a game of musical apartments for expatriates who aren't rich enough to rent the truly legal "foreigner apartments" or "luxury villas." My husband and I are on our fourth place in 18 months. We know that relaxed rules are likely to suddenly snap to attention late at night during politically sensitive times.

But it seemed a bit much to be harassed because our own leader was in town, spouting rhetoric about cooperative Sino-U.S. relations and human rights. Shouldn't they show how much they value this state visit by being extra nice to Clinton's constituents? Like letting us into the Forbidden City for the Chinese price for a day?

No such luck. Instead, just as it does before June 4 each year (the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident; last year we were kicked out of our first apartment during this period) and as it did during the buildup to the China-Hong Kong handover, rigidity set in a good two weeks before the president's arrival. Suddenly friends who live in the well-known "foreigner ghetto" in northeast Beijing were heading home from the bars early, wanting to get home before the cops staked themselves out. If they ran into a cop stationed at the gate to their building, they would have to pretend they lived somewhere else, leave the neighborhood and spend the night at a bar or on a friend's floor.

As the time until presidential touchdown ticked down, things got tougher. "They started stopping every taxi that came down the road in front of our complex," my friend Jessica complained. "We'd just have to pretend not to speak Chinese and point in some faraway direction until they got frustrated and waved us on." Meanwhile, other officers went from door to door, knocking and knocking -- but few people opened up. After a while, the cops just went away.

The strange thing about the checkpoints is that this is an area of town where the police are obviously in cahoots with the property owners to rent to foreigners for (comparatively) big money. At all other times, foreigners walk in and out unmolested, and local groceries even stock Western goodies such as cheese and Jack Daniel's just for them. Maybe that's why the police never stake out all night to catch the residents leaving for work in the morning -- they're just going through the motions.

I didn't experience any of this Checkpoint Charlie hassle because my husband and I are the only foreigners for at least a mile around. When the knock came at our door, we had become so complacent that I let on we were home by shouting, "Who is it?" before I saw the uniforms through the peephole.

"May we come in?" they asked.

You have to be careful with Chinese cops not to laugh at them and make them lose face. They're not very threatening, with no guns, nightsticks, radios or even hats that fit them well. We had to give one of them a piece of paper so he could write down the details of our "case." Before that, he was writing on his hand.

Both officers were about our age -- mid-20s. After informing us that we were being treated to this 11:30 p.m. visit thanks to the man we voted for twice, they borrowed our phone to call their boss, lit up smokes and tried out their meager English on us. They could say "no" and "I'm sorry."

"There is nothing wrong with us living here," I pointed out to them in Chinese.

"I'm sorry," they said sadly.

"We are registered to live here."

"No," they said, and fell silent.

A few minutes later one started in on the standard speech about China's laws' applying to everyone in China and how if he, himself, went to America, he would have to follow U.S. laws. But after being ousted from three apartments and making the serious error of overstaying my visa once, I know the speech by heart and, when he heard me reciting along, he trailed off. Finally their boss and our landlord -- with a friend who happens to be a policeman -- arrived to talk it out.

"Don't worry, it's just because Clinton's here," my landlord told me, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The correlation between a summit between world powers and police in my living room is less clear. "We just have to work extra hard during this time and investigate everything," the officers told us. In fact, they were required to stay on duty around the clock and sleep at the police station. They could go home when Clinton went home.

"They're afraid you might see something bad and tell one of the foreign reporters in town," our landlord told us in private.

After wasting two hours standing around with my bathrobe clutched shut, I was finally allowed to go to bed on the condition that the landlord take us to the station in the morning to register again. Apparently no one was awake at the station who understood the filing system enough to find our registration form, so, for tonight at least, we were as good as not registered.

"Happy birthday," one of the officers told my husband as they left, noticing that it was now June 27, the date of birth listed on his passport. The next morning, after waiting two hours for the opportunity to fill out a four-inch-long form, we ventured to ask if it was all right to go ahead with the birthday party we had planned for that night.

"Sure," the officer behind the desk said solemnly. "Just so no one spends the night without registering."

The crackdown shows that this visit is so important to China it almost rivals last summer's historic Hong Kong moment. During that sensitive time, one of my friends got deported for printing T-shirts for the local branch of the Hash House Harriers running club with the word "handover" on them. Interpreting his action as potentially dangerous propaganda, the authorities busted him Saturday and had him on the first flight out on Sunday.

Americans aren't the only ones to get picked on, but we are the most numerous Western expatriates here so everything seems to fall on our heads. The locals who live on the outskirts of the law have problems too. For example, the flow of pirated CDs and movies has recently been damped, and police periodically oblige the usually tolerated street peddlers to pack up their goods a few times a day. A few halfhearted parking regulations have even been enforced to impress the foreign visitors.

"It's a nicer, more civilized city now," my friend Danny says, tongue in cheek. He spent last Thursday night falling asleep on a bar stool after being interrogated for an hour outside his building.

"I just came to this block to buy a bottle of water," he told the cops.

So now it's early evening. Beijing is abuzz about the live TV debate between Clinton and Jiang Zemin, and I hop in a taxi to pick up two ice cream birthday cakes at Baskin-Robbins. A 20-minute ride, with air conditioning. Despite the heat, getting the cakes back to the freezer should be, well, a piece of one.

Foiled again by the presidential agenda! Between Baskin-Robbins and my home looms Tiananmen Square, where traffic must be blocked off for Mr. Clinton's arrival at the banquet at the Great Hall of the People. The streets are impassable. Drivers are getting out of their cars to chat. By the time I get to the police-sanctioned birthday party, the cakes are soup and the guests already arriving. It's enough to make me want to shout, "Yankee, go home!" And take your entourage with you.

Michaela Griffin

Michaela Griffin is looking forward to the rest of the summer in Beijing.

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