What I couldn't write in China

Relative press freedom hasn't led to rampant muckraking, but it's not all smiles and "Have a great day!" beyond Olympic Beijing.

Published August 23, 2008 4:40PM (EDT)

Forget about ping-pong. China's national sport is reading between the lines. For decades, even centuries, official pronouncements and state-dictated reports have been carefully scanned for the implications of some critical omission, the leader whose name got left out, yesterday's slogan suddenly discarded.

For me as well, finishing up my Olympic coverage and another challenging stint in China, it seems that what I couldn't find, didn't see, was kept from hearing or reporting, looms larger than all the spectacle scalped tickets could buy.

This wasn't for lack of effort -- which took me out past the new Olympic city to the end of the new northern subway extension. Guided by an adventurous photographer from Philly recently settled in Beijing, I came to see a large enclave of unofficial "recyclers," perhaps a thousand or two former farmhands, all from nearby Henan province, who now saw better opportunity in picking, sorting and cleaning the capital's plastic bottles, cardboard, cotton rags, obsolete computers and other less palatable detritus. Trash was definitely a Chinese growth industry.

And many were raising their children in concrete block huts set in the midst of the stink and waste. This was a China far from cheery Olympic banners urging citizenry to create "green and cultural zones" or to "start up a new trend -- pay attention to civilization!"

Still, aside from growling guard dogs, no one blocked our unwelcome attention. One tenant trash sorter even explained how barriers to transport out of the city during the Olympics had killed his usual income of $20 a month. Other men, playing pool in place of working, would only say they were enjoying their two-week "holiday."

Unlike numerous past trips, when I had been followed by vans of Public Security Bureau spies, or escorted everywhere as required by government minders from bogus "host" organizations -- in early years to block scrutiny of sensitive issues but later merely to scrounge expensive meals off the rich foreigner -- this time I was free of obvious impediments.

Restrictions for journalists had been loosened step by step in recent years, and flung aside altogether, at least temporarily, as China strained to show the world its "open" response to the Sichuan earthquake. Now, aside from having to register with local police if I wasn't in a hotel, I could presumably have traveled beyond Beijing to anywhere in the country (excluding Tibet).

Some had predicted, in the run-up to the Olympics, that such free access would lead to a deluge of negative stories as muckraking foreign journalists ran amok. So what happened to those stories? Where the chilling exposés of human-rights outrages or peasants disgruntled over irrigation water diverted to feed Beijing's splashing stadium fountains?

Maybe there is a Nixonian "silent majority" out there who feel these games are a giant waste of human resources and state treasure. As is so often the case, dissent came through to me solely in the form of whispered jokes. The five fuwa, cutesy Olympic mascots based on ancient Chinese elements, were being called the "five disasters" -- in reference to all that had befallen the country in the past year. The "Bird's Nest" stadium was mocked as "impermanent" and "easily crushed," like real nests in nature. And the impressive procession of opening fireworks meant to symbolize "footsteps" in the air were said to be stepping on the people instead.

According to more grapevine humor, those angriest at China's leaders were the many prostitutes kicked out of town just when a huge harvest of horny young Westerners were there for the picking!

But I couldn't report much on the large number of Muslims from Xinjiang province who once populated Beijing. Their larger neighborhoods have been bulldozed away, while many were recently sent home or had simply left. Even Niujie (Cow Street), a popular tourist area around Beijing's largest mosque, has been eaten away by office towers.

There was no point in interviewing the docile, skullcapped Uighur waiters in the lamb restaurants in the area, as cowed as the street name.

And I can't tell you much on meeting a Tibetan businessman -- who was being subjected to harsh questioning every time he traveled, even as he planned, like most other Tibetans, to skip town altogether during the games.

I did get to meet Ma Jian, a famed dissident author normally living in exile in London, but mainly because Ma dared to defy orders given him when he entered the country to refrain from public appearances and "anti-Olympic" activity.

Viewing the Chinese body politic as near death since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 -- a metaphor advanced brilliantly in his new novel, "Beijing Coma" -- the writer urgently wanted to spread his view of the Olympics as a planned campaign to crush dissent akin to the Cultural Revolution. That seemed a bit extreme, but it was certainly true that I couldn't write about the dozens of other activists and authors already jailed, especially Hu Jia, the meek and mild Web site host who was imprisoned, though ill and with a pregnant wife, for "crimes" such as being an advocate for AIDS sufferers.

And I didn't bother to see for myself the three parks designated as "political protest" areas during the games when other reporters informed me that every Chinese person they followed, including a lawyer advocating workers' rights and two elderly women in a long-running dispute over evictions by rich developers, had been hauled off and imprisoned as soon as they dared apply for a protest permit.

For most Olympic guests, any such grumpy notes are drowned out by tens of thousands of enthusiastic young volunteers trained to say, "Have a great day!" and "See you again!" Even the out-of-work massage girls perched in barber chairs around the city cheer for favorite sporting idols like attractive diver Guo Jingjing.

China's mass media has finally mastered the machinery of celebrity mythmaking. And it has also figured out the most modern means of efficient repression. Better than muzzling those with dangerous thoughts is creating a populace so focused on personal goals and consumerism that they have nothing to say in the first place. For this strategy, who can blame them? They are merely learning from us.

By John Krich

John Krich has been covering China for 20 years, most recently as the Asian Wall St Journal's main food/sports/culture writer. He's the author of "El Beisbol," "Won Ton Lust" and other literary travelogues.

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