June 4 report #1: Beijing (long)

I left the city this morning for a long-planned reporting trip 600 miles to the southwest, in Shaanxi province. As I implied yesterday, I was glad to have the option to leave Beijing. But updates I have received from various sources fall into these categories:

1) Several people have written to say that the going was surprisingly easy. For instance, this account from a Chinese-American man in his 20s whom I know in Beijing:

We were tourists and took many many photos, even asking the plainclothed police who were keeping their eye on us to take one or two. We didn't get hassled; in fact, aside from the ridiculous numbers of cops, obvious and otherwise, there seemed to be no difference from when I was there two weeks ago, showing friends around. Time: 8am. Persons: myself, another Chinese-American, and two white guys. Just wanted to add that data point to your blog, especially in light of the note of caution you posted.

2) For fully authorized foreign TV news crews, the problem of the day was not so much frontal confrontations with security officials as -- well, you have to see the pictures to believe it. The Shanghaiist site has a roundup of photos and videos of the ever-so-suave "umbrella trick" as practiced on news crews from CNN, BBC, and AFP. This is the kind of thing that makes you hold your head and say: Rising major power in the world?

3) Speaking of the CNN/BBC blackout difference I mentioned previously, it's possible that our apartment house is getting its BBC feed through some outside-normal-systems satellite connection. I hear from other people in China that the normal, authorized (ie, subject-to-censoring) foreign satellite feed cut off CNN, BBC, as well as French TV 5 at all the predictable points.

4) My wife, lacking the excuse of travel to Shaanxi, and equipped with the multiple tools a woman can use to alter her appearance from one day to the next, went back to Tiananmen Square today looking like a different person from the one whose presence the authorities had noted the previous night. Her report on the day's activities is here and after the jump.

I went to the square at noontime, expecting to see pretty much what we saw last night: the square off limits, people walking along the roadside or staring at the flag and Mao's giant portrait.
I was really shocked to see the square itself open to the public during the day. Or, as I realized later,  open to the "public." There were thousands of people on the square, but there was something odd about the scene.  I realized by the end of the afternoon that this crowd was deliberate, and the casual afternoon at Tian'anmen was as orchestrated as the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic games.

Everyone going into the square was funneled through a security tent, just like for the Olympics. A young woman scrounged through my purse, looking closely (in contrast to the subway screeners' half-asleep attitude) at my wallet, my phone, my brush... She asked for my passport, and I showed her the photocopies of the name page and the current visa page.

I moved to the metal-wanding line. But then a very stern, no-nonsense, non-English-speaking guard again demanded my passport (I feigned ignorance and said in English that I already showed my passport). A little scuffle later, he looked at my papers, called his superior over, scoured my purse again, and finally begrudgingly let me through.

Once "inside", it looked really weird. There were collections of people in yellow shirts, pink shirts, purple shirts, turquoise shirts. There were more groups holding like-patterned umbrellas. It seemed like everyone had umbrellas, men and women alike. But the Chinese do like umbrellas on sunny days! There were formations of green uniforms marching around; police trucks driving slowly around the edges, an occasional car blustering through (as usual) the crowd. There were lots of solitary undercover police, just like last night. Many wore black, others in their own street clothes.

Lots of groups were obviously deputized young men who stood around watching, staring, following people like me at least 3 on 1 at any given moment. There were no women in this capacity.  There was a clear absence of the usual "oblivious" quality of Chinese crowd movement, where people bump into you, brush against you, or cut in front of you if you happen to be in the path of where they're going. Everyone milling about was acutely aware of everyone else in his space. They seemed to have assigned space.  Some deputies also wore group-colored shirts, all wore "badges" with the Chinese flag surrounded in gold, Many looked like the kids who volunteered at the Olympics. Clearly nationalistic. All young. I wondered if they were paid for the day.

I would guess about 85% of people on the square were there officially. You could tell that because the security lines were basically unpopulated, while all the "deputies" just walked around the screeners without being checked. There were very few tourists, foreign or otherwise. There were mostly uniformed and non-uniformed police. Some foreigners were taking pictures, seemingly unmolested. Any footage and photos will be dull-looking; the shots would look "normal". It was just the feeling of intense orchestration and deliberate crowd-building that gave it away. And also a distinct sense of high-tension, which carried around the front of the Forbidden City, but evaporated just around the corners.

The rest of the city was oblivious. Crowds, shopping, shoving, everything perfectly normal, as far as I could see.

Perfectly normal too at the Beijing airport when I departed, and the one in Xi'an when I arrived, and out in Shaanxi province in the small town (whose population I now see listed as five million -- or maybe one million, on another web site) where I am tonight. And so the anniversary passes, mainly "just another day."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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